The Weight Of War: Protection Vs. Mobility
A Seattle Times/KUOW Report
In some ways modern warfare has not been kind to the modern warrior. Advanced weapons technologies, satellite communications and battle field simulators help soldiers and Marines fight the enemy. But despite the military's efforts, soldiers' gear loads are still weighing them down.
Marine Captain Matthew Kutilek believes some of the problem was exacerbated by the reaction to IED (improvised explosive device) explosions in Iraq. The Pentagon — under pressure from families and Congress — reacted by beefing up body armor.
Kutilek: "Maybe in the political eye it looked like we were protecting people by making them wear more body armor. But in reality it hindered the way we fought, and most of all it reduced our maneuverability in combat."
Service members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely carry loads from 60 to more than 100 pounds.
KUOW's Patricia Murphy teamed up with The Seattle Times to explore the weight of war.
Sound: "We're under attack"
This is a YouTube video of a firefight in Afghanistan. US troops are under attack. They can be seen sprinting from their armored vehicles in full combat load to engage the enemy. It's an intense and physical firefight.
Marine Captain Matthew Kutilek has deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He says this kind of dismounted battle where troops are on foot is common in Afghanistan's rugged terrain.
Kutilek: "When we walked into Laki last January 4, we had never been there before, we carried everything on our back, we had vehicles behind us but we carried everything on our back to be sustainable. And I carried, we carried, every Marine carried roughly 110 to 125 pounds minimum, and some guys carried more, and we walked 13 kilometers under the cover of darkness."
Studies have recommended that troops carry no more than a third of their bodyweight in gear. Yet despite some effort by the military, truly effective light–weight body armor has yet to be developed.
There are some options.
While in Afghanistan, Kutileck says he went to his Battalion Commander with concerns about the weight they were carrying. As a result they switched to lighter body armor which he says offered a dual benefit.
Kutileck: "We had the opportunity to wear the SAPI [small arms protection inserts] plate carrier which is lighter — it's much more mobile, you have much more range of motion in your arms and your shoulders. It's still heavy but it's not as heavy as the other gear. To me, mobility trumps massive, cumbersome, heavy protective equipment every day."
But some troops don't have the same access to lighter equipment.
There's anecdotal evidence that some military personnel are turning to illegal steroids to help shoulder the combined load of body armor and gear. In 2008 soldiers confessed to using steroids during an investigation at Joint Base Lewis–McChord.
One soldier said he almost fell out of formation during a road march through the woods. His weapon was taken. He said he turned to steroids because wanted to make sure it didn't happen while he was deployed.
Kutilek says the key to maintaining physical health while on duty is staying fit, staying hydrated and stretching.
Kutilek: "Believe it or not the human body gets used to wearing 65 to 70 pounds of gear. It doesn't like it, but it gets used to it."
Bottom line, Kutilek says Marines will do all they can to go out on patrol and not let their buddy down.
Kutilek: "They don't want to be perceived as weak and making up an injury or being a malingerer."
After each patrol Kutilek says it was not uncommon for Marines to visit the corpsman for some type of medication or Tylenol for pain.
Kutilek: "I think every Marine, every infantry Marine experiences a lot of discomfort, a lot of initial superficial pain, when they're in Afghanistan carrying this load. Absolutely. Does that equate to other injuries when you get back? I think it does in certain instances."
Relieving pain in the field has proven tricky for the military. According to the Department of Defense many of its deployed troops are now regularly abusing prescription drugs. Pain killers like Vicodin and Percocet.
In fact prescription abuse in the military tripled between 2002 and 2008.
Army Specialist Joseph Chroniger says he was in great shape when he deployed to Iraq in 2007. Today he's facing chronic pain that on the worst days immobilizes him.
Chroniger: "Well I have a degenerative neck disease, they call it DDD [degenerative disc disease], and it started pretty much after we got home. My neck started cracking and popping all the time."
Degenerative disc disease is an arthritic condition that's usually associated with aging. Chroniger is 25.
While in Iraq Chroniger says like most people in his unit, he spent his downtime lifting weights. He was a private when he deployed and that meant carrying even more than the usual gear load.
Chroniger: "Privates get stocked with all the extra stuff so I had, you know, radio with a battery in it and that adds some weight, then all the extra antennas. Squad leader captains, all their extra land warrior batteries. All of my magazines, grenades, your NODs [night observation device] — you know, your night vision — you got your helmet with all its little racks that you put on, like the rhino mount and everything, then you've got your boots plus just your regular gear."
Sometimes his missions required him to stand in full gear for hours which bothered his neck.
Chroniger: "My neck burned. It was like a deep burn too, like to your bone. It hurt so bad. But you get used to it eventually, but then it causes problems."
Chroniger is still in the military but is in the process of being retired for medical reasons.
The Army has made an effort to embed physical therapists within some units, but for the most part access to this type of care is still limited to combat support hospitals.
Muscle strain is usually a short term condition that has always been prevalent among soldiers. But after a decade of war in Afghanistan the numbers of acute injuries that have progressed to the level of chronic pain has grown significantly.
Part of the problem may lie within the very thing that makes a good warrior: mission–focused toughness and determination.
Chroniger: "In the infantry world the way it goes is, it's almost frowned upon to complain about an injury."
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that between 2002 and 2007, 31 percent of all medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan were due to muscular, skeletal or spinal injuries.
More than double the number of medical evacuations due to combat injures.
Like many in his situation Army Specialist Joseph Chroniger has applied to receive disability for his injury. The Veterans Affairs says musculoskeletal injuries account for many of the disability claims for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chronic low back and neck pain and degenerative arthritis of the spine are the most common.
It's an expensive problem. Currently these types of injuries are costing taxpayers more than $500 million a year. That figure could potentially climb into the billions as ten of thousands new veterans receive disability for musculoskeletal injuries.
I'm Patricia Murphy KUOW News.
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