CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq --
Accidental deaths and injuries that occur due to operator fatigue is a major threat throughout the U.S. military and is even more of a threat in a combat environment.
The obvious solution to resolve the problem of operator fatigue is a proper amount of sleep. However, for many service members and civilians serving in a combat environment, getting an ample amount of quality sleep is sometimes impossible. Long work hours, high stress levels, worries about family back in the states and constant loud noises are enough to keep the average person from getting enough shut eye to operate efficiently.
Lt. Cmdr. Paul Sargent, M.D., a psychiatrist with the Combat Stress center at Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, saw the need for training to prevent accidents due to fatigue and lack of sleep. He recently implemented a new course to improve the quantity and quality of sleep for deployed troops. The course began Oct. 5 and is held every Monday for four weeks.
The Combat Sleep School, as it is known, is a four-week training session that is geared toward a small group of approximately 10 people who have reported problems with falling or staying asleep. The small group structure is designed to allow sufficient time for each person to discuss their sleeping issues and allows for feedback from the other group members on what does and doesn’t work for them.
“Treating a sleep problem early is important because fatigue can lead to decreased combat effectiveness. Once poor sleep habits are engrained they are harder to treat,” Sargent explained.
Sargent educates participants in skills such as progressive muscle relaxation, relaxation breathing, and behavioral therapy for sleep. He says all of the techniques taught are evidence based and have been used successfully with civilians; eighty to 90 percent of those civilian participants noticed an overall improvement in the quantity and quality of their sleep.
He added that in order for the techniques to work, they must be practiced, just like any sport such as football, basketball or tennis.
“Education is more than just information dissemination,” Sargent said. “In order for people to improve the quality and quantity of their sleep, they have to learn how to do it, take the tools they receive, practice and then they will get better.”
One of Sargent’s current students, whose name is withheld for privacy concerns, says they were in desperate need of help for their sleeping issues. At times, they could barely function in their assigned tasks and were often on the verge of falling asleep at any moment.
“I was only getting about two to three hours of sleep most nights and would wake up feeling like I had been awake for days. It got so bad that I began to feel disoriented and couldn’t focus on completing simple things,” the Marine stated.
In addition to learning about different sleep skills, students also engage in practical application of those skills. Every week Sargent instructs the students to incorporate the techniques into their sleep routine and document the number of hours they slept and which techniques worked for them. He then takes their data and uses it to help develop a more efficient course for the next group that needs help.
Although the security situation in western Al Anbar province has improved, the operational tempo for Marines and sailors at Camp Al Taqaddum has not decreased. In fact, it has intensified for most. In previous years a course like the Combat Sleep School was not feasible because of the constant attacks on Coalition forces and the necessity for troops to always have a high level of alertness. But now as the U.S. military draws down its forces and equipment from Iraq and redeploys back to the states, Sargent reminds commanders that the danger of fatigue is still a major threat.
“Fatigue can jeopardize the mission and safety of your Marines and sailors,” he said. “Right now they are more of a threat than the threat of an enemy outside the wire. So managing their sleep and allowing your troops to get an adequate amount of rest can make for a safe and successful redeployment process.”
Although Sargent insists on keeping the class confined to a small group, he plans to hold another course in November to help even more service members and civilians fight fatigue to make for a safe transition home.