Service members face unique challenges in being able to get adequate sleep, as well as face unique dangers when dealing with sleep deprivation. Achieving enough restorative sleep is essential for personal safety, unit performance, and even national security.
Major General Aubrey Newman once wrote, “In peace and war, the lack of sleep works like termites in a house: below the surface, gnawing quietly and unseen to produce gradual weakening which can lead to sudden and unexpected collapse.”
Sleep Problems Are Widespread In the U.S Military
On average, around 70% of service members do not get the recommended amount of sleep a night. After at least 6 months of deployment in Iraq, one study found that U.S Army soldiers’ part of Operation Iraqi Freedom only slept an average of 5.8 hours a night. Worse yet, merely 16% reported a daytime nap or even felt like their performance was affected by the lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation was also higher among those with prior combat exposure and was even associated with a range of mental health issues including depression, generalized anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and panic disorders.
Poor sleep has also been shown to be associated with high-risk health behaviors such as abuse of tobacco and alcohol, and even suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, the price service members are paying by not prioritizing sleep is taking a serious toll on both their physical and mental well-being and safety.
The rates of sleep dysfunction balloons in service members who’ve experienced combat-related traumatic brain injury. In fact, one study showed that nearly all (97.4%) of those surveyed reported sleep complaints, with many experiencing severe sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia. Service members reporting blast injuries and blast trauma experienced over double the rates of anxiety which was associated with a significantly higher prevalence of sleep disorders.
Factors Explaining Differences in Sleep Across Military Branches
The rates of sleep disorders also vary by military branch. According to a recent study published in the journal SLEEP, the rates of sleep apnea and insomnia have increased across all branches of the military since 2005. However, those in the Army had significantly higher than expected rates of sleep disorders relative to the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. By contrast, members of the Air Force report significantly higher rates of sleep compared with other military branches.
There may be cultural and operational explanations for these sleep differences across branches – and leadership may even play a role in whether service members obtain sufficient sleep. According to military surveys, only 26% of army leaders encouraged their members to get sufficient sleep, and less than one third considered sleep as an important factor that contributes to performance and safety.
These cultural barriers are likely to start early in service member’s military training. Although research shows that trainees with sufficient sleep significantly outperform their sleep deprived counterparts, cadets and soldiers in basic training consistently sleep less than 5 hours a night during the week. They’re also awoken by environmental interruptions between 2 to 4 times a night.
Even more concerning is the fact that less than 4 percent of service members seek help for sleep-related concerns. As a result, sleep problems continue long after military members are deployed. According to the Millennium Cohort Study, over 70 percent of service members reported sleep less than 7 hours after 3-5 months following deployment.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Military Performance
As is true for anyone, service members’ functioning drastically decays when they don’t get enough sleep.
Consequences can include errors related to firing, entering coordinates, driving, determining threat level, monitoring equipment, administering medicine, and more. For instance, a study of artillery marksmanship showed that short sleep duration worsened performance the next day. Attempting to rely on willpower or adrenaline rushes cannot compensate for insufficient sleep.
Sleep deprivation has a devastating impact not just on performance, but also on the safety of service members. The risks of accidents during training, operations, and combat environments significant rise if service members are sleep deprived. Those undergoing training yet deemed non-deployable due to physical issues may also be more likely to have sleep problems.
According to researchers from the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, “In response to this epidemic-like increase in sleep disorders, their prevention, identification and aggressive treatment should become a health-care priority of the US military.”
Sleep Is Finally Becoming the U.S Military’s Secret Weapon
The U.S Military has recently begun to prioritize optimal sleep across branches in order to ensure the safety and productivity of their service members. Of the US military branches, the Army had the first service-wide education program regarding military-appropriate sleep practices. In 2020, the Army updated its Holistic Health and Fitness Manual to expand on the importance of sleep and methods to improve sleep hygiene.
In March 2021, the Pentagon submitted a report to the U.S. House of Representatives outlining the effects of sleep deprivation on the readiness of members of the armed forces. In the report, considerations for shift work, sleep during training, sleep in tactical environments, and sleep recovery after sustained operations were addressed. It was also recommended that the Department of Defense establish strong policies to promote a cultural shift to prioritize and incentivize adequate sleep in the military. Major recommendations from the report included the following:
- Duty schedules must be adopted to ensure eight hours of sleep.
- Training in sleep leadership should be implemented.
- Education and other steps should be taken to decrease caffeine use.
- Existing research-based strategies should be adopted to address travel-related circadian rhythm disruption.
- Use of brief behavioral interventions and mobile applications for sleep disruption should be expanded.
- A clearinghouse for military sleep-related resources should be established.
These reports finally emphasize that sleep is critical to mission success and that no one is immune to the profound effects of sleep loss on the brain, on health, and on military readiness and resilience.
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