A lack of sleep is breaking the US military

by Tommy Grant

From the very first days of initial entry training, trainees are grounded in the core values of their branch of service. However, other unspoken principles are also ingrained from the very beginning. One such unspoken principle is “sleep is a crutch.”

According to multiple studies from both inside and outside the Department of Defense, only one-third of military members meet the recommended minimum guidelines of seven hours of sleep. The military hates sleep, and it is breaking the force.

The connection between sleep and physical performance is generally understood, but sleep’s relationship with mental health, stress management, and cognitive function is less recognized. Slow-wave, or deep sleep, and rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, are key to restorative rest. During these cycles, the brain recovers from its daily workload, prioritizes information, commits lessons to memory, and dumps non-essential data.

A well-rested service member learns faster, is more resilient to stress, and has greater cognitive function compared to one with low quality (not enough slow-wave or REM sleep) or a low quantity of sleep. In fact, a recent study of more than 5,000 Army soldiers showed that soldiers had lower body fat percentage, exercised more per week, and were significantly less likely to use tobacco compared to those who slept less than seven hours a night. Essentially, the military gets a better service member when they are well rested.

While the benefits of sleep are clear, the health risks associated with a lack of sleep are also profound. A Veterans Health Administration study of recent combat veterans showed that 72% reported low sleep quality. Those who reported low sleep quality had a five times higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, nine times higher risk of major depressive disorder, and six times higher rate of suicidal ideations. Another study of recent veterans linked poor sleep efficiency and quality with greater psychological distress. This means veterans or service members are not only more likely to become depressed or have suicidal ideations, but they are also less able to manage the psychological distress associated with those conditions.

Additionally, the consequences of sleep deficiency also compound over time. Sleep debt is accrued through consecutive nights of poor sleep. The more sleep debt, the more pronounced the repercussions in physical performance, cognitive function and psychological resiliency. As the body reacts to a lack of sleep, it will prioritize critical life functions over non-essential tasks. Reaction time will increase, immune function will decrease, and emotional control is stunted leading to poor decision-making. As a result, service members are more prone to make mistakes, some of which could be fatal.

To address the impacts listed above, senior leaders must first appreciate the necessity of sleep and place a much higher priority on recovery. That includes training leaders at all levels on the importance of sleep, investing in biometric tracking technology to help service members understand their individual sleep metrics and empowering junior leaders to establish a culture that values sleep.

This does not mean that the military can only work an eight-hour day. The nature of war and its physical and psychological toll has not changed. However, leaders should limit the exposure of sleep deprivation, train service members how to recover from a lack of sleep and provide the time needed regain the cognitive function necessary before starting high risk events.

In a world that incentivizes toughness, selflessness, and perseverance, sleep quickly becomes a casualty of the culture. While the scientific and sports communities understand the essential nature of sleep to aid in performance, health, and overall recovery, the military maintains its course believing toughness can overcome the necessity of sleep.

In closing, the benefits of proper sleep are as constructive as the impacts of poor sleep are destructive. While the military contends with mental health issues and a rising suicide rate across all components, leaders are failing to address an underlying cause. No amount of resiliency training can overcome a chronically under-rested force. The mental health trends seen today will continue until the military sheds its war on sleep.

Maj. Dave Nixon is an active duty Army Officer currently assigned to the XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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