NATICK, Mass. (Aug. 25, 2014) – In an era of downsizing and budget cuts, placing the right Soldiers in the right jobs, keeping them healthy and optimizing their physical performance have never been more important.
With that in mind, 325 scientists from around the world gathered in Boston this week for the 2014 3rd International Congress on Soldiers’ Physical Performance, or ICSPP, to share ideas and increase efficiency in those areas.
“The whole notion here is to get international scientists together to network and to have scientific exchange and dialogue, with a goal of really trying to have a better understanding of how to improve the health and performance of our Soldiers,” Dr. Brad Nindl, ICSPP co-chair, told participants in a media roundtable Aug. 19. “If you look at the program here, so many countries, so many militaries, are working on the same issues.”
Nindl, science advisor at the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health for the U.S. Army Public Health Command and an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, noted the fiscal constraints under which the U.S. military is now operating.
“So things are going to get leaner,” Nindl said. “To improve efficiency, I think we have to look to collaborating with our international neighbors. My goal would be that when people leave here that they have a network of fellow scientists who are working in similar areas.”
Nindl’s co-chair, Marilyn Sharp of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center, has been working to develop physical performance standards for Soldiers in an effort to predict who would be the best fit for a given job.
“Our goals right now are to try to come up with ways to place the best Soldier in the right job, and in that way, we will reduce injuries and optimize performance,” Sharp said. “This is coming at a critical time. Everyone has to be able to do their job and do it well as we reduce the number of Soldiers that we have in our Army.”
As the Army rolled out its Performance Triad, which focuses on improving Soldiers’ activity, nutrition and sleep, the international gathering also looked at ways to keep warfighters healthy.
“There’s so much scientific information known in terms of how to improve Soldiers’ sleep, activity and nutrition that the challenge for all of us is to operationalize this for the Soldier on the ground, for the leader on the ground,” Nindl said. “There are many things that we can do, many effective strategies that we can implement, if we continue to be innovative.
“The way that’s going to be successful, I think, is by partnering with other nations, our international partners, and by breaking down stove pipes, breaking down communication barriers across different Army commands, different Army units, so that there’s a unity of effort going forward.”
Advances in Soldier equipment present ongoing challenges for these scientists.
“I think Soldier load has been a problem for decades,” Sharp said. “And every time we lighten Soldiers’ load, we add another piece of equipment to make it worse.”
Sharp added that Soldier load has steadily increased since the Civil War, despite a recent 20-year effort to lighten it.
“The amount of load that you carry both in absolute terms and relative to your body weight is going to increase your injuries while you’re deployed,” Sharp said. “So I believe it’s a very big problem that we need to continue to work to solve.”
Dr. Nigel Taylor, an associate professor in the Centre for Human Physiology, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong, Australia, said that location of the load is also important.
“For instance, placing one kilogram on the foot is eight times more metabolically inefficient than placing that one kilogram on the torso,” Taylor said. “So it’s not just the load that they’re carrying; you’ve got to be smart about where it’s located, as well.”
Sharp noted that load can inhibit a Soldier’s ability to move.
“We’ve seen, particularly, women whose body armor goes across the hip joint,” Sharp said. “They can’t do their job effectively. They’re far less mobile than they need to be.”
According to Nindl, training and advances in material science and textiles can help with Soldier load, which is more than just a matter of comfort.
“When you survey the medical evacuations from a combat theater over ten or twelve years — 35,000 medical evacuations, plus — the major reason for those medical evacuations was not due to combat-related injury, but is due to musculoskeletal injury. And most of those injuries are from training and overuse,” Nindl said. “I think a lot of those injuries would be related to load carriage, as well. Musculoskeletal injuries, particularly of the lower body, are a major problem, a major threat to our force, whether in garrison or whether in a combat theater.”
Sharp said she hopes that these scientists return home with “a better understanding of what other countries are doing in a more detailed way. A better understanding of the science of Soldiers’ physical performance will continue to be critical in ensuring each country’s national security.”
Taylor said it’s not enough for scientists to sit and wait for the next paper or book to come out with new information on Soldier physical performance. He added that years can be wasted that way.
“Knowledge is not a static phenomenon,” Taylor said. “It’s continually growing. We need to be contributing to the growth, sharing our knowledge, and learning from others in all countries, because no one country has a monopoly on expertise.”