Army Surgeon General: Sleepy Soldiers as Impaired as Drunk Soldiers

Soldier sleeps.

The Army's surgeon general said the "new frontier" deploying agile and sharp soldiers is ensuring the soldier has a healthy brain.

"When we're talking about cognitive dominance [by our soldiers] you absolutely have to focus on ensuring a healthy brain, ensuring that [they] have that mental agility," Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho said Wednesday during a presentation entitled The Human Dimension at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington, DC.

Part of maintaining a healthy brain is ensuring soldiers get enough sleep. The Army has understood the importance of sleep, but Horoho said this has often been disregarded by unit leaders who believe "that we're being effective when we're sleep deprived."

"If you have less than six hours of sleep for six days in a row you have a cognitive impairment of 20 percent – that you are cognitively impaired as if you had a.08 percent alcohol level," she said. "We never will allow a soldier in our formation with a .08 percent alcohol level, but we allow it every day to make those complex decisions."

Horoho said Army researchers and scientists are looking at ways to keep the brain healthy. This includes training in techniques to reduce stress levels and even in the development of rations intended to fuel body and brain.

"I really believe this is the new frontier. I think its unknown how powerful our Army can be if we start out with a healthy brain, and take the best from industry, academia and from our Army and training. I think that's the power we're going to really see optimizing performance."

Horoho spoke during a session where Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown, commander of the Army's Combat Arms Center, emphasized that the complexities of the modern battlefield require soldiers that are ethical, socially, culturally and politically knowledgeable, and who understand consequences of individual actions.

War is no longer about killing the enemy before he kills you, but knowing when not to kill – a decision that a soldier at times must make in an instant, Brown said.

The ability of soldiers to reduce stress, the amount of sleep they get and what they eat all have an effect on the brain, and their cognitive ability will affect the decisions they make in combat, Horoho said.

The Army also tested wireless bionic monitors to track and report physical performance data on soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Fort Lewis, Washington.  Those devices monitored personal data on sleep activity and personal nutrition, but the Army is moving toward a more sophisticated device.

"Where we need to be going and where we're working [toward] is biosensors that will be wireless, integrated and will give real-time data to the individual soldier and the individual unit, so they can make quick time adjustments n the middle of battle of different activities and missions we have."

"We are really focusing on our soldiers being that human weapon system for our Army," she said.

Several years ago the Army began issuing Modular Operational Ration Enhancement, or MORE, rations – specific for operating in cold or hot climates, or high-altitude regions – to make sure troops got the nutrition they needed to stay healthy, both in body and mind.

"What you put in your body not only fuels your body, but it fuels your brain," Horoho said. "And we have to connect both those two when we try to be as agile and flexible in decision-making, in making those split-second decisions that General Brown is talking about."

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