Water Purification on the Go
by First Sergeant Richard A. Montcalm, Sr.
One of the biggest "showstoppers" for the infantry has been providing potable drinking water to troops when and where needed. In the past, units on patrol used purification tablets to treat water found in sources along their route of march. But the tablets do not remove protozoa such as Giardia Lamblia and Cryptosporidium or waterborne viruses such as Polio virus type 1 or Rotavirus. Nor do they neutralize pollutants such as herbicides and pesticides.
The Army addressed the need for potable water to a great extent with the development and fielding of reverse osmosis water purification units (ROWPU's). These units produce adequate amounts of potable drinking water; however, they are stationary units, and the water they produce must be distributed through LOGPAC's, which could be delayed, misrouted, or disabled. The resulting deprivation of water could lead to serious medical problems, such as heat strokes and even death, for the affected soldiers.
For example, during a rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, Louisiana, in May 1995, my platoon, the 3d Platoon, A Company, 2d Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), was tasked to move the company's "dead" and "wounded" (the entire 1st and 2d Platoons) to a casualty point approximately 300 meters away. The soldiers went on the mission with four quarts of water each. Their rucksacks, which contained seven quarts of water, were to be brought forward later. At the end of the casualty evacuation, most of the soldiers had consumed two quarts of water because of the ambient air temperature of 89 degrees Farenheit with a heat index of nearly 100 degrees during the day. The company commander tasked my platoon to clear the company's sector, a 3-square-kilometer section of terrain that consisted mainly of swampy areas and palmetto and pine forests. After crossing the creek and swamp, the members of the platoon were completely out of water, and many were suffering from heat cramps.
The platoon leader and I agreed that we should call for an emergency resupply of water. Because of the long distance from the company command post, the tactical situation, and the remote location of our platoon, a LOGPAC vehicle could not reach us. So a UH_60 Black Hawk helicopter was dispatched 1½ hours later with 30 gallons of water to resupply the platoon. This emergency situation could have been prevented if we had had an efficient, lightweight means of purifying water on the go.
The civilian backpacking community has several outstanding off-the-shelf products that could fit the bill. After testing several models and interviewing experienced soldiers, I identified a prime contender for use by light infantry, air assault, airborne, and ranger units. While it does not desalinate watera standard set by the Army Combined Arms Support Command for a portable water purification systemthe Sweetwater Guardian Plus with the Viralguard Cartridge would meet the needs of units on the "pointy end of the spear."
During their real-world deployments, soldiers in the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, experienced the same problem that my platoon encountered at JRTC. Three of their teams deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina for an extended period. Since they did not have the luxury of direct support from an onsite ROWPU, and the local water supply was questionable at best, the teams purchased several portable, hand-operated, water purification systems. They chose the Sweetwater Guardian Plus because it was different from the "push-pull" systems they used while they were deployed to Somalia and other Third World countries. Those systems were not durable or reliable and were inoperable if the operating rod became slightly bent.
The Sweetwater Guardian Plus is self-contained, easy to operate, and produces water that is cleaner than that from a household faucet. It weighs only 11 ounces, produces 1 to 1¼ liters per minute and, with proper cleaning and maintenance, can produce up to 200 gallons of potable water between filter changes.
The combination filter used in the Sweetwater Guardian Plus consists of a four-micron pre-filter, a labyrinth ceramic filter, and an activated carbon filter. This is the most effective water filter on the market today. This filter also removes chlorine, iodine, herbicides, pesticides, trihalomenthanes, and volatile organic compounds.
I recommended the filter for adoption by the 101st Airborne Division in an
effort to reduce a soldier's load.
Carrying 4 quarts of water (8.8 pounds) and 1 filter (11 ounces), as opposed to 11 quarts of water (24.2 pounds) saves approximately 15.4 pounds, making a soldier's load lighter and giving him an edge while engaged in simulated or actual combat.
The system is not intended to be a replacement for the ROWPU, but instead, a combat multiplier. Until overtaken by technology, the ROWPU will continue to be the primary source of water for the infantry. However, the Army infantry does not train routinely near or on salt or brackish water as does the Marine Corps. When it does, its leaders will find techniques for seeking or making desalinated water outlined in Field Manual 21_76, Survival. Also, the Army has ROWPU barges that produce more than 100,000 gallons of desalinated water a day, so water supply near a beach should not be a problem.
The Government would enjoy a significant cost saving by using a portable
water purifying system. Based on information gathered from interviews and
historical data from units deployed to JRTC, the estimated first-year cost
savings to JRTC would be $261,344.15. This figure factors in the cost to
purchase 177 Sweetwater
Guardian Plus systems (the number recommended for fielding to three infantry brigades and the long-range surveillance detachment for the 101st Airborne Division during three JRTC rotations per year) and the cost to operate a UH-60 helicopter ($1,879 per hour) for water resupply. It does not include the millions of dollars that would be spent for phase maintenance of the helicopters used for water resupply.
The Sweetwater Guardian Plus may not be the complete answer to providing potable drinking water quickly. However, I believe it is a good interim solution until a better one comes along. An 80-percent solution right now is better than a 100-percent solution 5 years from now.
First Sergeant Richard A. Montcalm, Sr., is assigned to Joint Task
Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras. He is a graduate of the Airborne,
Ranger, Jumpmaster, Pathfinder, Air Assault, Jungle Warfare, and Hazardous
Materials Handling Courses. He also has attended the Marine Corps Reconnaissance
Swimmer and Waterborne Operations Courses and the Air Force Ground Operations