By Melissa McKeveny
The promise of Human Performance Optimization in the US Military isn’t only about ensuring the readiness of our Human Weapon System. The bigger impact of this work is on how we care for our warfighters throughout the lifecycle of service: from recruitment to deployment to retirement, and all phases in-between.
With 1.4 million active servicemembers in the US Military, personalized attention at this scale is an audacious, seemingly impossible, goal. But it’s by boldly tackling complex problems like these that we will drive the US Military and Human Performance industry forward.
The technology exists. The data is there or is waiting to be captured. As a nation, we have the tools, the expertise, the leadership, and the desire. Now it’s time to get to work.
To effectively develop a servicemember-centric solution, we must start by better understanding the unique physical, psychological, and cognitive loads that are placed on military personnel.
The tip of the spear: a Human Performance Platform that enables efficient and accurate data collection. With metrics around performance, recovery, wellness, injuries and more, we can uncover insights and develop individualized programs at scale that improve how we support warfighters throughout the lifecycle.
Unique Demands of a Warfighter
According to Today’s Military, “a first term is generally four years of Active Duty followed by four years in a Reserve unit or Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).” A career can last for up to 20 years, and warfighters must be ready to perform at a moment’s notice. As a result, the lifecycle of the warfighter must be managed over an extended period of time, with an emphasis on sustainment and long-term readiness.
The range of activities required of active-duty personnel is broad and varied. One day a warfighter might be under a vehicle in the motor pool, the next they could participate in live-firing exercises, and the next they might have to navigate an obstacle course.
They – which may require its own programming, according to a study published in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health – and have to be able to run, crawl, climb, and jump while wearing protective gear. Sometimes they must do so in harsh conditions ranging from arctic to tropical to desert climates.
By looking at each stage of the lifecycle, and understanding the tasks our warfighters carry out and the conditions under which they do so, we can identify the key questions to be answered and metrics to monitor.
Warfighters’ Acute and Chronic Injuries
The incredible demands we put on our servicemembers contribute to a high incidence of non-combat musculoskeletal injuries (MSKIs). These can be acute – such as twisting an ankle – or chronic, like plantar fasciitis. With a Human Performance Platform, we can collect accurate injury data and understand trends over the course of the warfighter’s lifecycle.
For example, we know a high percentage of acute injuries occur during the first few weeks of basic military training (BMT). The authors of a review published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal attributed this to the fact that “the type and volume of the physical load are relatively higher than recruits have previously experienced before BMT, and failure to adapt to the increase in training load increases the risk of MSIs.”
Acute injury incidence is even higher during special operations selection and training. A study released via the American Journal of Preventative Medicine noted an injury rate of “6 to 12 per 100 male recruits per month during basic training to as high as 30 per 100 per month for Naval Special Warfare training.”
Due to the ongoing performance of repetitive actions like running and jumping, service personnel also struggle with chronic conditions. According to a 2019 survey of US military personnel published in MSMR, “Of the 10 conditions that affected the most service members, 3 were injuries (knee, arm/shoulder, foot/ankle) [and] 2 were musculoskeletal diseases (other back problems and all other musculoskeletal diseases).”
When warfighters deploy on tours of duty access to training and recovery modalities is reduced, psychological strain is increased, and sleep and rest are compromised. These create chronic loads over six to 12 month-periods. We must also factor in the trauma that some personnel experience and the resulting psycho-emotional repercussions. The MSMR study cited anxiety and adjustment disorder as the two most common mental health concerns among active-duty personnel.
When we understand the common trends and risk factors at various stages of the servicemembers’ lifecycle, we can proactively deliver tailored programs to address those. For example, a personalized training program can be implemented to help a warfighter prepare for BMT. For one person, that might mean improving cardiovascular fitness. For another, it might focus on building upper-body strength.
Using Data to Find the Sweet Spot
All of the factors mentioned above create a unique challenge for strength and conditioning coaches, instructors, and other staff responsible for the performance, health, and wellbeing of the warfighter. Their ongoing mandate is to identify a sweet spot that allows the Human Weapon System to be adequately prepared for daily and deployment duties, without becoming overloaded to the point of illness, injury, or burnout. But armed with only pencil and paper, and a laptop with Excel (if they’re lucky), Human Performance Program Managers face an uphill battle meeting these expectations.
With the right Human Performance Platform, we can see how performance and wellness change from phase to phase of the lifecycle and helps us find the sweet spot. This is particularly beneficial for the small staff that is responsible for overseeing the performance, recovery, and wellbeing of several thousand people at any one time.
Effectively presenting the data in a meaningful way to other stakeholders is also critical. For the individual warfighter, being able to see objective data on sleep, heart rate, HRV, and other measurables can be educational and enable better self-management. This can be particularly beneficial in regard to recovery.
The further up the chain of command, the less data information is needed. High-ranking officers often desire nothing more than a bird’s eye view of their personnel’s overall readiness, which is why a dashboard showing simple, yet informative charts and graphs can be beneficial in providing an at-a-glance overview.
Commanders of individual units may wish to view more granular information that can allow them to make more timely and informed decisions about day-to-day activities based on where their troops are from a load-management perspective.
A Bold Initiative
Evolution is hard. It requires us to question if the things that made us successful in the past will get us to where we need to be in the future. Human Performance Optimization efforts in the Military are no exception to this rule.
But by arming visionary leaders and change agents with state-of-the-art technology and partnering with the best minds in the industry, we know we can have a significant and positive impact on the lives of our servicemembers.
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 Julia Coyle, Rodney Pope, and Robin M Orr, “Load Carriage: Minimising Soldier Injuries Through Physical Conditioning – A Narrative Review,” Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, July 2010, available online at https://jmvh.org/article/load-carriage-minimising-soldier-injuries-through-physical-conditioning-a-narrative-review-2/.
 Iris Dijksma, Jagannath Sharma, and Tim J. Gabbett, “Training Load Monitoring and Injury Prevention in Military Recruits: Considerations for Preparing Soldiers to Fight Sustainably,” Strength and Conditioning Journal, April 2021, available online at https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2021/04000/Training_Load_Monitoring_and_Injury_Prevention_in.3.aspx.
 K R Kaufman, S Brodine, and R Shaffer, “Military Training-Related Injuries: Surveillance, Research, and Prevention,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, April 2000, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10736541/.
 “Absolute and Relative Morbidity Burdens Attributable to Various Illnesses and Injuries, Active Component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019,” MSMR, May 1, 2020, available online at https://health.mil/News/Articles/2020/05/01/Absolute-and-Relative-Morbidity-Burdens-MSMR-2020?type=Fact+Sheets.