The Marine Corps is taking steps to better prevent heat-related injuries and deaths after a North Carolina-based corporal died during a 6-mile hike last summer.
Cpl. Alexis Aaron Alcaraz, a 22-year-old field radio operator assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, fell out of a unit hump just before sunrise Aug. 13 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Officials concluded that he died of heat stroke, according to the investigation into his death, which was obtained by Marine Corps Times via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The investigating officer determined Alcaraz might have been more susceptible to heat illness because: he didn't have a full night's sleep, he went on the hike on an empty stomach, his normal routine had been disrupted while on temporary assignment duty in the days leading up to his death, or that he had consumed alcohol while on that trip.
Knowing temperatures would rise throughout the day, Alcaraz's leaders scheduled the Aug. 13 hike for the 1/8 Marines to kick off at 4:40 a.m., about two hours before the sun was scheduled to come up that day. While the temperature stayed below 73 degrees throughout the duration of the hike, the early start meant the Marines participating couldn't hit the chow hall, which opened at 6 a.m.
While an operational risk management worksheet for the hike states that "section leadership will ensure each Marine consumes chow prior to departing for the event," the investigating officer found that no arrangements were made to provide the members of 1/8 with food prior to the hump.
"The early step time meant that individual Marines had to acquire food for themselves the evening prior to the hike at their own expense," the investigation states.
The investigating officer recommended that in the future, the division "mandate that all units conducting extended duration physical training outside of mess hall hours … provide some form of nourishment prior to execution."
Specifically, "1st Battalion, 8th Marines should have provided Meals, Ready to Eat or field rations for the hike participants," the investigation states.
Alcaraz's death prompted the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division to direct a unit-wide safety stand down, said 1st Lt. Joe Caldwell, a spokesman for II Marine Expeditionary Force. Topics covered during the stand down included hot- and cold-weather injuries, safety procedures and operational risk management, he added. Division staff also developed new training materials for commanders.
"These products stressed the importance of nutrition as it pertains to preventing heat injuries and also required commanders to develop nutritional plans as part of their operational risk management process for combat conditioning," Caldwell said.
No warning signs
Alcaraz had no signs of existing health issues before collapsing that humid August morning with a body temperature of 106.7 degrees.
The Marine, who joined the Corps in June 2012, had earned first-class scores on his past physical and combat fitness tests. The medical officer found "no evidence of chronic or acute medical issues" in Alcaraz's medical records. He was not dehydrated, had no record of being on the body composition program, and had no drugs or alcohol in his body.
Several witnesses in Alcaraz's unit told the investigating officer that the corporal had fallen out of a hike about three weeks before his death, but the communications platoon commander said that hump "was longer with heavier equipment in hotter weather."
"Alcaraz was counseled by the Headquarters Company Commander for his failure to complete the 24 July 2015 hike and assigned to complete an essay on noncommissioned officer leadership," the investigation states.
The battalion's operational risk management worksheet for the Aug. 13 hike states that any Marine who had been a heat casualty in the past needed to be identified prior to the event. Alcaraz was not treated for heat illness when he fell out of the July hike.
Two days before his death, Alcaraz and another Marine drove about 225 miles north to Fort Lee, Virginia, where they dropped off a piece of gear to another unit training there. The Marines stayed overnight in Richmond where they went out for dinner.
The Marine who traveled with Alcaraz told the investigating officer that the corporal drank three or four Long Island iced teas that night. The pair returned to Lejeune midafternoon the following day. The Marine saw Alcaraz in the barracks later that evening drinking water and Pedialyte, the investigation states. They talked about the upcoming hike.
About 90 Marines with 1/8 set out on the 6-mile exercise just before 5 a.m. It was scheduled to last about two hours, and GPS data collected by the investigating officer shows that the Marines kept a pace of about 3 mph.
Around the fifth mile, Alcaraz began stumbling. He told a corpsman he was dizzy and complained that his right arm was numb before falling to one knee and losing consciousness, the investigation states.
Within five minutes, a safety vehicle arrived to assist. The corporal's clothes and gear were cut away, and he was packed in ice in order to lower his spiking body temperature.
Alcaraz was taken to the Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital where emergency room personnel tried to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead by medical staff at 6:47 a.m.
Alcaraz's family members could not immediately be reached for comment about the investigation's findings or the Marine Corps' new safety measures following his death.
Marine deaths during physical training are rare. Two Marine officers died during PT in 2014. One died during a unit PT run and the other during the 3-mile run portion of his annual physical fitness test.
Gina Harkins is the editor of Marine Corps Times. She oversees reporting on Marine Corps leadership, personnel and operations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.