Saturday, March 05, 2005

First in a Series "Survival Kit Contents: Headlights"

Solider in Iraq wearing the Petzl with 3 LEDs. The TacTikka Plus model, with 4 LEDs, is a better choice.

Baquba, Iraq

Troops rotating into Iraq should try to avoid dying needlessly.

Our troops in Iraq are increasingly prepared; the new up-armored Humvees, for instance, are routinely shot at and blown up by roadside IEDs and usually the troops walk away. I saw one vehicle yesterday where the front end had been nearly blown off two days earlier, yet everyone walked away. The shock wave blew the earplugs out of the soldiers' ears, but they were fine and returned to duty. Despite the good news, there is always room for improvement.

Many of our troops are not being issued critical items. Items that can save lives. In a word: lights. There is no doubt that Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying in Iraq because they lack the right kinds of lights.

Consider this situation: some nights ago, we were in firefight. The .50 caliber gunner in the Humvee that I took cover behind had a problem that threatened to deadline his gun. We were taking serious direct fire. We needed his machine gun. Amid all the shooting, his voice called out, "I need a light!"

During the same firefight, while bullets were flying, soldiers started running out of M16 ammunition. One soldier was searching among all the ammo piled in the Humvee, trying to feel for the M16 magazines. "Where's the M16 ammo?!" he shouted. The Humvee was packed with machine-gun ammo, with hand grenades, and with 40mm grenades, but where did the M16 cans get kicked to?

Moments later, as the shooting raged, a voice on the radio crackled that yet another .50 caliber gun on another Humvee in our convoy would not fire. We now had problems with two machine guns, and were running out of M16 ammunition. One gunner was using my headlight while someone else rummaged for ammo.

This was not good: we had four Humvees and four crew-served weapons. Two of those weapons needed lights to keep them working. Not to mention the other problem of "where’s the M16 ammo!"

Although I will argue that every soldier should have a light, it is also true that ammo cans and other essentials should be marked with Velcro or other tactile materials so soldiers can quickly identify them by feel in the dark. This trick works, but doesn't change the fact that our troops need lights. More specifically, they need headlights.

Practically every raid I go on, whether noon or midnight, someone says, "Who’s got a light? I need a light!" The soldiers know that headlights are not available through the supply channels except to the medics. Some soldiers have had lights mailed from home, but this leaves many others in the dark. And if that soldier who is left in the dark happens to be a machine gunner or other key person, everyone else might be left in the cold, dead.

In Iraq, every person is key. Every soldier should have a headlight.

Now, soldiers have lights, but they usually have the wrong kinds. Many troops are wearing the thumb-sized LEDs. These are nice for the FOBs (I have two), but are practically useless on raids, in firefights, or when people get shot and need assistance. Soldiers and contractors cannot depend on those five-dollar lights when leaving the FOBs; they are not suitable for combat.

I've heard some argue that headlights are not needed and that the smaller LEDs are sufficient. Most of the people who make this claim have insufficient experience in harsh environments.

In addition to the small LEDs, some soldiers are depending on their weapons lights. The problem is that these are extremely bright and do not have red filters. There's no question that these Surefire-type lights on the weapons are important, but their usefulness has a limited scope, primarily for clearing buildings and shooting people. The Surefire-type lights should be used for combat only; they are not best for times when both hands are needed for searching in closets and rummaging around through trunks and drawers. When a soldier doesn’t have a headlight, another soldier often has to stand there pointing his loaded weapon to illuminate the search zone.

There are situations where someone is shot, blown up or otherwise damaged and the number of people who can provide direct assistance is limited because at least one other soldier needs both hands to operate the Surefire. The tactical weapons lights are simply not meant to be general-purpose illuminators. They are also vampires that suck vital juices from batteries so thoroughly that the cells practically collapse like raisins after a single night. If serious combat were only an occasional threat over here, this power-consumption might not be a major drawback. But when combat patrols and raids are happening on a daily basis, this extrapolates into a serious problem, not to mention that the lithium batteries for these lights are expensive and often hard to find in Iraq. The elections may have been a big success, but we're at least a decade away from a Wal-Mart just up the road.

Many soldiers prefer the mini Maglites. I have several at home in the US. Great little lights: for the glove box, the nightstand, the basement, for camping, and for cops. Soldiers sometimes fashion "headlights" by clenching the little metal Maglites between their teeth. But after running, dodging bullets, hurdling obstacles for city blocks, then running up and down stairs carrying plated body armor, weapons and hand grenades, a soldier trying to grip and aim that little metal light between his teeth will be lucky not to inhale it. Besides, why jerry-rig something that you can get inexpensively and well-made in the US?

Having used headlights for years I know there are a number of good models, but I have found one in particular that works well here in Iraq: Petzl brand, TacTikka Plus model. And, for those cynics who read about all the pundits on secret payrolls to promote programs and policies, let me just say--I have no professional relationship to the Petzl Company. They probably never heard of Michael Yon; and if they have, they haven't bothered to solicit or pay for my endorsement.

Here's what I like about the TacTikka Plus. It has 4 LEDs. It is small and bright. It is comfortable to wear and designed so that the controls are intuitive to operate, even in chaotic environments. It has 4 settings: dim, medium, bright and strobe. Few people seem to use the strobe, but the three other adjustments come in handy.

The TacTikka Plus also has a red-light shutter. There is a Tikka model that does not have the red filter. Do not buy this light. No headlight should be brought to Iraq without red-light capability. A drawback is that the TacTikka Plus uses AAA not AA batteries. However, with good batteries, the TacTikka Plus is bright enough for close work.

Advertisements claim that the AAA batteries will last for about 150 hours of continuous use, but I change the TacTikka Plus batteries every twenty or so hours.

These lights cost about forty bucks, and can save lives. Yesterday morning, I snapped the photograph above of a soldier wearing a Petzl with 3 LEDs. He's getting good use of it, but the model with 4 LEDs is a better choice. The Army medics use this Tactikka Plus; if it’s good enough for combat medics, it’s pretty doggone good.

In a coming post I will describe how Ghost Platoon here in Baquba has found ways to avoid shooting innocent Iraqis by using cheap spotlights.

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