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I have seen a similar heater before when I was in the American military. Are these the same?

If you were in the American military before 1996, then the answer is no. The present heater is a more advanced version of the first heaters introduced during Desert Storm. In 1991, the heater device was a solid, cindered pad in a very narrow bag. Since 1996, the new design is lighter, more flexible, takes less water to activate and generates more heat. It is made up of granules of Magnesium coated with Sodium Chloride and incorporated in a semi-permeable membrane and inserted in a wider bag.