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Sleep loss a chronic problem for Afghanistan troops, Army says

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, rest outdoors between missions at Joint Security Station Sadr City in 2009. A sleep expert at Veterans Affairs, along with a veteran's advocacy organization, cite troops' exposure to dust and smoke in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq as contributing factors to sleep apnea.

U.S. ARMY FILE PHOTO

By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 20, 2011

WASHINGTON – Combat troops in Afghanistan suffer from high rates of sleep deprivation, a recent Army mental health report indicates, but not from factors that might be suspected.

Only about 10 percent of soldiers and 15 percent of Marines reported sleep problems over a 30-day period because of combat stress. And another potential culprit – video gaming and movie watching – accounted for less than 5 percent of reported sleep problems.

Respondents overwhelmingly said night patrols coupled with hot, loud daytime sleeping environments were the biggest sources of trouble. Nearly half of Marines surveyed cited those factors, and about 30 percent of soldiers.

Overall, the report based on a survey of more than 1,200 soldiers and Marines in 2010 showed morale plummeting while exposure to combat violence surged to new heights. Most troops surveyed said they had seen comrades killed in battle and had themselves killed the enemy. But they also said access to mental health care had improved since the last survey in 2007, and reported strong unit cohesion and leadership from sergeants.

The services are beginning to realize that sleep loss might combine with other physical or psychological harms to make a bad situation worse, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker said Thursday.

“We do have mental health and behavioral health experts starting to point out to us that the combination of exposure to combat, maybe concussive injury and the presence of sleep deprivation makes for a real challenge to the human psyche,” he said. “So focusing on the commanders’ role in enforcing good sleep discipline is one of the things I think we’re going to look at very carefully.”

Previous mental health surveys show soldiers and Marines are chronically sleep deprived and get far less than the recommended seven hours a night, said Army Medical Command psychologist Col. Paul Bliese.

“We know that that has a chronic impact on cognitive abilities, so people who are sleep deprived simply cannot operate as cognitively efficiently as those who aren’t,” he said.

Unit commanders should start looking now for ways to help troops get enough shut-eye, such as arranging sleeping areas so groups working different shifts don’t wake each other up coming and going, he said.

The Army, meanwhile, has begun a study to determine just how much soldiers really are sleeping because, Bliese said, "we believe chronic, year-long sleep deprivation is certainly likely to have some potential mid-term or long-term cognitive effects and adjustment affects.”

carrollc@estripes.osd.mil

 

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