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OPINION

Military readiness’ future is personalized, high-tech

By DR. PHIL WAGNER AND MALCOLM B. FROST | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: August 13, 2020

According to the Congressional Research Service, 2020 marks a full decade that the year-over-year number of combat deaths suffered by the U.S. military has declined. The combination of fewer overseas combat operations and technological advances (and perhaps COVID-19 in 2020) had led to a period of relative safety and health for the American warfighter. Unfortunately, there remains a serious hidden threat to the physical well-being of American service members: noncombat musculoskeletal injuries (MSKIs).

Due to the visible scars associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most Americans believe that combat is the chief source of injuries for service members. However, according to a March 2020 study in Military Medicine, MSKIs “may account for nearly 60% of soldiers’ limited duty days and 65% of soldiers who cannot deploy for medical reasons.” Another report shows that 70% of these MSKIs were caused simply by military-related training and overuse.

Any individual injury is a cause for concern. When tallied across the entire armed forces, chronic noncombat injuries create incredible challenges to long-term readiness. The Department of Defense has said that on any given day, around 14% of the total force is nondeployable. One of the most common reasons is due to training injuries. Considered alongside the rising numbers of Americans that are unable to serve due to obesity, legal issues or other disqualifiers, it is imperative that we keep service members fit to serve.

In addition to the human cost involved, there is also a tremendous financial cost to the military and to the taxpayer. The military spends about $3.7 billion annually as a result of soldiers experiencing MSKIs. Left untreated, MSKIs often become chronic or even disabling. Indeed, osteoarthritis (a common overuse injury) typically develops in only 20% of civilians, but is present in 33% of servicemembers and veterans. This results in the government providing medical care to many servicemembers long after their term of service ends, through the Department of Veterans Affairs, further extending the duration of care and increasing long-term costs.

Fortunately, military leaders are aware of these troubling statistics and have taken critical steps to reverse these trends. Several branches, including the Marines, have begun working with physical therapists, strength coaches and athletic trainers to improve fitness and prevent injuries within individual units. The Army is in the process of rolling out a similar Holistic Health and Fitness program. To immediately change the culture of fitness, the Army also just instituted a new fitness test for the first time in four decades. The new Army Combat Fitness Test better reflects the physical demands of service and is forcing long overdue cultural change that will result in increased health and fitness levels. Though these efforts have been criticized by some for their start-up cost, the long-term increase in readiness and fiscal savings will dwarf initial investment costs.

Changes this significant require utilizing the latest technology to accelerate gains, track progress, and measure success. This summer the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed their own versions of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Part of the legislation requires DOD to conduct a study on the effectiveness of utilizing force plate machine learning technology to measurably track biomechanics. This will allow the military to predict injuries, tailor individual fitness programs, and facilitate rehabilitation — thus resulting in cumulative improvement in individual fitness levels and overall military readiness.

Our company, Sparta Science, is an industry leader in using Force Plate Machine Learning technology to improve military health outcomes. Thanks to our initial success working with partners across different branches of the U.S. military, we believe this year’s NDAA can be a game-changer for this military fitness revolution.

Using this technology, service members perform a 5-minute scan assessment and are immediately shown their risk level for developing MSKIs. Commanders and leaders — with the advice of assigned fitness and medical professionals — would develop customized training programs to strengthen trouble areas while minimizing the chances for injury while on duty. Rather than the current annual physical fitness tests, service members can be scanned weekly or monthly, giving leaders the ability to hold individuals accountable for progress and a clearer, up-to-date appraisal of overall fitness levels.

A recent study by Penn Medicine showed that Division I athletes who used this technology experienced a 19% reduction in total injuries when compared to a control group. We foresee a drastic reduction in the number and severity of injuries — not to mention medical costs — for service members taking advantage of this technology, as well.

We applaud Congress for passing this forward-thinking legislation on behalf of our nation’s service members. With the president’s forthcoming signature of the bill, we are confident the U.S. armed forces will be better postured for this new era of fitness, resulting in long-term force protection and increased readiness.

Dr. Phil Wagner is the founder and CEO of Sparta Science. Malcolm B. Frost, a retired U.S. Army major general, is a strategic adviser to Sparta.