WASHINGTON—They won't be wrapped in colorful paper or be trimmed with festive bows, but the plain brown boxes that 1,500 soldiers in Iraq get next week will contain much sought-after equipment.
Thanks to an anonymous donor from New York, a California company is shipping $100,000 worth of hands-free hydration systems to 101st Airborne Division troops from Fort Campbell, Ky., and 4th Infantry Division soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas.
The camouflaged backpack carries three liters of water and features a tube that wraps around to the mouth, allowing a soldier to slake his thirst without putting down his weapon.
The CamelBak hydration-on-the-move system is standard issue for Special Forces and some other elite military personnel—but not for everyone. For troops in Iraq, they cost about $62 plus shipping fees.
When the 1,500 free ones arrive in Iraq—in time for Christmas, CamelBak vows—they'll be used immediately, said 101st Airborne Division Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill via e-mail.
"Remaining hydrated is a must and is a task that can easily be overlooked during winter months," Hill wrote. "A day in Iraq can give our soldiers a taste of all four seasons. Soldiers experience temperatures ranging from 35 degrees to 80 degrees.
"As soldiers patrol in the streets of Iraq, keeping their hands free to engage targets or react to contact is a must," he continued. "The CamelBak allows for freedom of movement."
CamelBak, based in Petaluma, Calif., has been making athletic gear since 1991. In 1997 it began offering a line of products for soldiers and police.
Hill said it took him about five years to be "a believer" in the hands-free hydration systems.
"I was stuck on the canteens issued," he said. "My opinion on their usefulness has changed."
The anonymous donor said he was inspired by a newspaper story last July about American soldiers fighting in the Iraqi desert and drinking their canteens dry.
"I felt that it was a shame that soldiers needed this piece of equipment and couldn't have it," the donor told Knight Ridder, speaking on the condition that his anonymity be protected. "They'd try to get it themselves, but they are not generously paid. I thought, `There's something I could do about this.' "
As little as one liter of water loss from sweating can reduce a soldier's mental sharpness and physical performance. A soldier wearing 30 pounds of body armor and lugging a pack and a weapon on a hot day loses that much in less than an hour, said former Navy pilot Chuck Hunter, vice president of CamelBak's military and industrial unit.
To drink from canteens, soldiers must use both hands and tilt their heads back.
"If you think about the situation in Iraq right now, that's not a good position to be in," Hunter said.
"With the CamelBak, you can drink a little bit of water all the time," he continued. "It's always there. They get more water more often, and they don't have to take their eyes off their surroundings or their hands off of their weapon."
The donor's gift was the biggest he'd ever made, he said.
"The vast majority of Americans support our troops," he said. "We want them to come home safe, and we want them to feel appreciated."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CAMELBAK