Lifting the lid on heat injuries in the forces

Having acted for a number of soldiers who have suffered with heat injuries, we at Bolt Burdon Kemp’s military team are watching closely the developments in the current Inquest into three deaths on the Brecon Beacons.

The Inquest

Three Army reservists, Lance Corporal Craig Roberts, Lance Corporal Edward Maher and Corporal James Dunsby died of hyperthermia during very hot weather whilst on an SAS recruitment test in the Brecon Beacons in July 2013. The soldiers taking part were carrying 49lb (22kg) rucksacks on the 16-mile (26km) march.

The Inquest into these tragic deaths, which began recently in Solihull and is on its fifth day, has heard evidence from soldiers taking part in the test. The evidence has been very worrying and it seems that:

  • Not enough water was provided to the soldiers.
  • Several soldiers were pulled off the March because of the heat.
  • Passers-by came to the aid of those soldiers struggling with heat exhaustion.
  • One of the instructors for the test, who has not been named, has admitted that he was not aware of the official service regulations (JSP539), which provide guidance on how to recognise and treat heat injuries.
  • In addition to the men who died, ten more suffered injuries, some serious and long term.

Army regulations state that once a heat injury is suspected soldiers should be taken off exercise and referred to the medical centre.

The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring manslaughter charges as a result of the death but the Inquest, which is expected to last for a month, may result in factual findings of fault against the instructors and/or the Ministry of Defence.

Heat injuries

Heat injuries can occur when the body’s core temperature rises beyond its natural state. Usually these injuries are suffered by people in hot conditions who are required to undertake physical exercise, and it is not uncommon for soldiers to suffer in this way where exercises are carried out in hot conditions and/or safeguards are not followed to keep soldiers cool and hydrated.

Symptoms include high body temperature, rapid breathing, quickened heart rate. Soldiers suffering with heat injury can often appear confused, agitated and/or suffer with seizures, because the body’s internal process and nervous system cannot work properly without water.

The worrying thing about heat injuries is how quickly they can escalate. If they are not identified and treated quickly they can lead to coma, organ failure and, eventually, death. The treatment can be relatively straightforward: stop exercise, find shade, cool down the subject with a fan or water and rehydrate them.

Moderate heat injuries, which might not result in death, can nevertheless leave soldiers suffering with long term conditions, such as problems regulating body temperature and psychological injuries related to their exposure.

If you think you have suffered with a heat injury as a result of your service, you should contact your medical Officer or GP immediately.