Chief Military Correspondent
In 30 years of covering wars, I've never seen anything like it. At the big U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and even at small combat outposts, troopers coming in for chow at the DFAC (dining facility, e.g. mess hall) dutifully wash their hands ... with hot water and soap. And dry them on paper towels. And put the wet paper towels carefully in waste bins.
Maybe this doesn't sound unusual to you. But bear in mind these are young men and women barely out of their teens, a demographic not known for meticulous personal hygiene standards, with carbines slung over their shoulders and mud on their boots. And they're in a hurry; they're here simply to fuel up. Many of them are fresh off of combat missions, or they're grabbing a fast meal before launching downrange (and there are always a few soldiers balancing a half dozen Styrofoam containers of eggs, sausage and hash browns to take back to buddies waiting in idling MRAPs or choppers.
Swine flu has only hardened the military's already stern attitude toward hand-washing. You can't get inside the DFAC without washing up. Not that the Army doesn't trust its soldiers, but here's a squinty-eyed NCO checking IDs and making sure everybody lathers up and rinses carefully before they're allowed through the door. And these are no bus station wash stands. The water is strong and hot, the soap dispensers are full, and there are plenty of paper towels. (Another feature of war, American-style: virtually all bases have portable toilets that contractors clean out daily with high-pressure hoses and disinfectant; they snap in new rolls of T.P., and top off the hand sanitizer disperser outside the door. But that's another story.)
OK, granted, in many places in Afghanistan troops don't get hot food or hand washing stations (let alone hot water). I've many times shared a spot on the ground with goat droppings in 120 degree heat, squeezing that runny MRE apple jelly on an MRE cracker and idly wondering when was the last time I washed my hands, not that I really cared at that point. Lots of soldiers and Marines live that way for weeks and longer. Eventually, though, they end up at a DFAC, where they join everybody else in the hand washing ritual that has become routine and thoughtless, like snapping on a seatbelt.
Hand washing isn't completely new, of course. During the first Gulf War (1991) and in Bosnia (1996), deployed troops would find these 5-foot high, green plastic hand wash stations outside the food lines, which were supposed to spout water when you kneaded the pump. Back then, hand washing was thought of in the same way as regularly changing underwear. There was something vaguely fussy and unmanly about it. Even the command seemed not to take hand washing seriously: somebody arranged to have these things delivered out to the troops, but nobody connected up the water or put in soap or paper towels. Soldiers ignored them and soon they were covered in dust. MREs come with a tiny foil-wrapped piece of "moist towelette'' which you can use to swipe your hands either before you eat, or after (to get rid of that sticky apple jelly), but not both.
But in the age of swine flu, the days of dirty hands are over. According to Pentagon data, swine flu has infected 3,849 members of the military since April 2009. No new cases have been reported since July, says Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. In the military, at least, hand washing seems to be effective in preventing the spread of the H1N1 virus.
But just to make doubly sure (this is the military, after all), Army headquarters has just sent out a directive commanding all medical personnel to carry "at all times'' two small bottles of 60 percent alcohol hand sanitizer. "One bottle will be for their personal use, the other is available to give to Soldiers who do not have any hand sanitizer,'' the brass advise.
In case soldiers are confused about how to use the stuff, they should be instructed, the directive from headquarters says, to "rub their hands together until the gel is dry; water is not required ...''