Army derm says troops should take care in sun

September 1, 2004

International report - Some soldiers serving in Iraq say military policies that restrict the wearing of hats during physical training are leaving them unprotected from potentially deadly sun exposure.

But U.S. Army spokesmen say concerned troops have options: They're provided with sunblock, and they can speak to their commanders, who can permit the wearing of headgear.

"The sunblock just sweats off in beads very fast," he says. "We are going to have a huge number of cancer risks."

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays is linked to the development of all types of skin cancer, including the rarest form, the potentially deadly melanoma.

However, an Army spokesman says physical training in Iraq is confined to early morning or early evening hours when sun exposure is minimal. Training is also kept to relatively short periods, he says.

"Sunblock is available in (Iraq)," says Scott A. Woodham, a communications specialist in the external affairs division of the National Guard Bureau of Public Affairs and Strategic Communications. "Medical facilities are available to any soldier who wishes to get checked for any reason. If the soldier has an issue, then (the) chain of command will handle the problem."

Lt. Col. Joe Pierson, M.D., the U.S. Army's dermatologist on the staff of the U.S. Army Surgeon General, is based at West Point, N.Y. Dr. Pierson says he takes seriously the concerns of any soldier who believes he or she is overexposed to UV rays.

"The top concern is the health and well-being of all our soldiers," he says. "Commanders in Iraq are well aware of medical concerns."

Dr. Pierson encourages "a flexible policy that allows the wearing of boonie (floppy) style caps when soldiers are exposed to the midday sun. That is consistent with our appro-ach in dermatology. Hats should be worn in conjunction with sunblocks."

Dr. Pierson says he also encourages the limiting of physical training to times when sun exposure is kept to a minimum. He says the absence of hats during physical training is more a matter of function than of form.

"Sometimes when doing exercises, the hats easily fall off and are then of no use," he says. "But soldiers who are concerned should approach their commanders."

Dr. Pierson says soldiers face other dermatology-related worries, too, such as leishmaniasis, an infection transmitted by the bite of a sand fly. More than 600 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been infected.

"In that area too, we stress prevention - bed nets, insect repellent," he says. "We are always concerned about the health of troops."

U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee and its Total Force Subcommittee, is also a physician who, when in practice, specializes in family medicine.

Dr. Snyder visited Iraq in early August - shortly after he was contacted by Dermatology Times - and he says he did not see soldiers in situations where their heads were uncovered during peak hours for sun exposure.

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