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Soldiers bear heavy burdens in combat – all too literally

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Feb. 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
February 16, 2011 5:00 pm
A U.S. soldier talks with an Afghan civilian in November 2010. (The Associated Press)

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Here’s a mind-boggling fact from a Johns Hopkins University researcher: Nearly a third of the military’s medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2007 were due to musculoskeletal, connective tissue or spinal injuries – more than twice the number of evacuations resulting from combat wounds.

Any soldier could suggest a reason for that: the sheer weight of all the gear they have to carry around.

Although the Army Science Board recommends that soldiers carry no more than 50 pounds, a 2003 Army study found that on extended foot patrols, they carry an average load of 87 to 127 pounds. This is often under hot, grueling conditions in mountainous terrain.

Little wonder that soldiers who haven’t hit their late 20s yet are experiencing degenerative arthritis, cervical strains and other conditions.

A new Seattle Times report looks at efforts by the Army to lighten soldiers’ loads – some more successfully than others. It seems as though every time a way was found to reduce the weight of one item – including body armor – something else would become heavier or some new equipment would be added.

At what point does gear meant to protect soldiers actually interfere with their effectiveness in the field and compromise their safety?

When coming under fire, isn’t there something to be said for being able to quickly take cover? That might not be possible when lugging around more than 100 pounds of weight.
For a comparison, firefighters carry about 40 to 60 pounds of gear – including their helmet. And they can shed that weight as soon as their job is done. Soldiers in the field might have to carry more than twice that weight for hours on end.

Clearly, if the military hopes to retain soldiers – and not lose them to debilitating conditions – it must move aggressively on lightening their load. The Times found that the number of soldiers who were medically retired from the Army with at least one musculoskeletal condition rose nearly tenfold from 2003 to 2009.

Besides more lightweight materials, use of robotic “mules” is being explored. But that’s probably years away from being practical. Soldiers serving in war zones need relief now.

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