Again, there’s something about poop that just draws me in. In this book, Roach delves into the effects bodily functions may have during operations as well as what life is like for those on submarines: “I talk to Special Operations men—Navy SEALs and Army Rangers—but not about battling insurgents. Here they’re battling extreme heat, cataclysmic noise, ill-timed gastrointestinal urgency.”

It was all fascinating. Truly.

Here are a series of highlighted passages of interesting facts and moments:

  • The calcaneal fat pad keeps the bone from abrading the skin on the underside of the heel. It’s an extremely dense, fibrous fat found nowhere else in the body.
  • To help prepare future corpsmen, the Naval Health Research Center hands out copies of The Docs, a 200-page comic book with lurid drawings of blast and gunshot injuries—a graphic graphic novel.
  • The bacterium that causes cholera is especially proficient. Cholera patients decant as much as five gallons of liquid a day. The efflux is so torrential that one of Dr. Phillips’s Navy colleagues was inspired to invent the cholera cot, an army-style cot with a hole cut out under the buttocks. (Bucket sold separately.) The cots, still made today, allow patients to “go to the bathroom without leaving the bed,” writes specialneedscots.com, taking euphemism into the realm of quantum physics.
  • Riddle traveled a lot in his twenties and recalls being hit by a realization. So much of people’s lives—their opportunities, their health and longevity—comes down to where they were born. “It’s so random,” he says. We’re over at his office, which is downstairs from his lab, in the same container. “It shouldn’t be that way. It shouldn’t matter where your parents happened to live.”
  • A fleet of drones resides in the zone, along with Navy SEALs and other Special Operations ghosts who pass in and out on their way from one classified gig to the next. These are the people I want to speak with. I’m interested in diarrhea as a threat to national security.
  • We heard a similar tale from a bombardier. On a long sortie out of Diego Garcia island, the only crew member capable of operating the plane’s defensive equipment abruptly left his post to use the chemical toilet—while flying over Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. On the return flight, a faulty seal combined with the pressure differential between the toilet’s tiered chambers caused the contents to spew into the crew cabin.
  • The mechanic was hit with diarrhea every time his team deployed. Because of this, he was never assigned any “long-range surveillance,” meaning counter-terrorism missions deep into insurgents’ turf. These missions, he says, entail hiding out in a hole,** watching a particular spot—say, an intersection: who comes and goes, how many trucks drive through, at what time of day.
  • Perhaps a second email is in order, this one offering compensation. Riddle advises against it. He says people will make up a story to get the cash. He has had men sign up for the diarrhea study, go into the bathroom, and hand him a Commode Specimen Collection tub with a perfectly formed turd inside. “Also?” Seamus again. “I’m done sending out PSAs about diarrhea. I’m set.” He got some blowback from Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa headquarters regarding appropriate content for base-wide email.
  • In Riddle’s survey of diarrhea in Iraq and Afghanistan, 32 percent of respondents reported having been in a situation where they couldn’t get to a toilet in time. And Special Operators in the field get sick twice as frequently as everyone else.
  • Unsanitary conditions, Carey confirms, are a given. “Unfortunately, we don’t fight in first-world countries.”
  • “I have many stories where I’ve soiled my pants on missions. In Iraq, I’ve soiled my pants. In Afghanistan, I’ve soiled my pants.” No one stays back or leaves to find a toilet once an operation is under way. Diarrhea cannot be a “kill stopper.”
  • “And then what happens?” Seamus leaning forward like a kid at story hour. “You go on to . . . do the job?” “There’s no other option. I mean, it’s kind of a life or death thing. So.” He shrugs one shoulder. “You go. Worry about it later. As long as you walk out and the mission is accomplished. And that’s about as specific as I can get.”
  • The air curtain is a high-tech version of the “fly curtain,” the beaded strands that hang in doorways in Middle Eastern homes, allowing breezes, but not flies, to pass. Who among the thousands of youthful 1970s doofs who hung these in their bedrooms had any clue as to the beads’ provenance as fly control? Not this doof.
  • The false prefix “bi” has duped many over the years—including the inventors of the monokini, the tankini, the trikini—into wrongly assuming that bikini means “two pieces” in Marshallese. In fact, it means “coconut place”—making the term deliciously if inadvertently appropriate.
  • When al-Qaeda blew a 40-by-60 foot hole in the hull of the USS Cole, the crew stuffed it with anything they could find. “Mattresses, wood, mooring line, sneakers . . . ,” Hough says soberly. “Wrapped it up and shoved it in the hole.” It took three days, but they got the flooding under control.
Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

First published June 7, 2016

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