|Story & photos by Tom Michele, Eagle Systems &
Soldiers from the 475th Engineer Company trudged through
15-inches of snow and shivered in minus-26 degree temperatures as they
trained to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
That was unusual for the 475th because it is an Army Reserve unit from
Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Sgt. Dennis Kilgore, left, an
observer-controller-trainer with the 181st Infantry Brigade,
holds a simulated improvised explosive device (IED) taped with
magnets that was stuck inside of the vehicle bumper beside him.
He was explaining the IED displays to the 322nd and 475th
Engineer Companies at Fort McCoy’s Contingency Operating
Company Executive Officer 1st Lt. Mike Martinez said normal high and
low temperatures at this time of the year in Puerto Rico are 82 and 62
degrees, “with sunny beaches, and that’s what we normally train in.”
Summer high and low average temperatures in their home territory are 100
The Puerto Ricans stepped off the plane at the La Crosse Airport Jan. 16
into near zero temperatures. It got down to minus-26 degrees Feb. 10,
the lowest of their stay at Fort McCoy.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration La Crosse Office
reported 11.3 inches of snow fell in the area in January, with a snow
depth of 14 inches at that time. The snow depth Feb. 1 was 15 inches.
The area received five inches of snow Feb. 20.
“The weather affects training,” Martinez said, “but we just try to keep
warm, keep motivated and keep training. We may have to go to mountainous
areas of Afghanistan, and there is a lot of cold and snow there.”
“Today it is a heat wave,” Martinez said, when the temperature reached
34 degrees Feb. 23.
The Puerto Rico unit, along with the rest of the Soldiers and civilians
at Fort McCoy in mid-January to mid-February, experienced several low
temperatures ranging to minus 26, according to James Hubbard,
Sparta-Fort McCoy Airport manager.
Company Commander Maj. Hector Castaneda explained his feelings about the
Wisconsin winter, “Incredible. Difficult. Everyone just bundles up.”
Puerto Rico Soldiers trudge
through the snow at Fort McCoy’s Contingency Operating Location
Freedom. From left are Pfc. Hector Cruz, Spc. Luis Gaudinot,
Spc. Alberto Martinez, Spc. Gisselle Gonzalez, Spc. Pedro Nieves
and Pfc. Jensey Carmacho.
Spc. Carlos Diaz, a 475th medic, said, “We had a few chilblains, like
ice burns, but not to the point of frost bite. We gave those Soldiers
proper treatment and rest.”
Jack Wagner, Mobilizing Unit In-Processing Center operations supervisor,
said all Army Soldiers learn how to prevent themselves and fellow
Soldiers from becoming cold-weather casualties as part of their Army
Warrior Tasks training as well as during their basic Initial Entry
Also, Wagner said, every company sized unit in the Army has a safety
officer/noncommissioned officer who has the responsibility of providing
appropriate briefings and information for how to deal with climatic
Ultimately, it is a first-line leadership responsibility to ensure their
troops are protected from injury in any climatic situation, and also to
be prepared to adapt protective measures as the day progresses.
Martinez said Soldiers learned cold-weather survival techniques, such as
dressing properly. “We weren’t at the start. We got used to wearing
several loose layers and changing socks every couple of hours. We were
given the seven-layer Extreme Cold Weather System clothing; we just
needed to learn how to use it in a specific way.”
Martinez said, for example, the intermediate cold-weather boots issued
to the Soldiers were inadequate for the weather they encountered. “We
were issued extra boot liners that helped, and we wore two pairs of
socks at the same time, and that helped. We also found that if you were
exercising, moving, it was fine. But, when you stopped, that is when
your feet got colder and could hurt. It was a matter of keeping moving.”
For Spc. Alberto Martinez, it was the first time he experienced snow.
“At first I was excited, but after a few days my feet got cold and I got
serious about putting on extra layers of clothing. We had a 100-degree
drop in temperature from leaving Puerto Rico to getting to Fort McCoy.
We struggled at first. We just learned what to wear, and how and when to
“We got into the habit of checking the weather when we got up in the
morning, and preparing what clothing items to wear and take along,” Spc.
Martinez said. “Some of that was carrying extra boots and socks. I had
never worn gloves or a knit cap. Change is hard, and is a challenge, but
it is good. You just have to adapt and keep going.”
He was the only one in a group of six Puerto Rico Soldiers in an
improvised explosives detection class who was a first-timer to snow. The
other five had experienced snow in their Army travels to Forts Leonard
Wood, Jackson and Sill.
Yet another Soldier, Spc. Emmanuel Garcia, a horizontal construction
equipment operator (bulldozers, scrapers, back hoes, excavators), said
he was born in New York and lived back and forth between there and
Puerto Rico as his parents worked in New York and they had Family in
Puerto Rico. “I was excited to see the snow at Fort McCoy, even though
we couldn’t play football. We knew it would be cold. We just dressed
right, kept our feet dry and kept hydrated. When we went indoors we took
off several layers. You go with the flow and keep mission-oriented.”