Recently there was an article in The Seattle Times about the devastating effects on US soldiers from carrying heavy ruck loads in combat (ARTICLE). The article details individual stories of young soldiers with chronic spinal arthritis as well as how musculoskeletal injuries have significantly increased since this war began. Depending on the branch and unit, loads vary anywhere from 70 to 130 pounds. The article calls for a significant “weight loss program” to reduce the average load carried by combat soldiers.
Unfortunately it isn’t realistic to ask an infantryman to carry less weight. How else would the team carry batteries, survival gear, food, water, ammunition, and necessary explosives with them in the field? Vehicles and even pack animals are used when they can be, but there are specific circumstances and specific units who have a mission that won’t allow help with carrying loads. The warriors will have to soldier on, as they say, in order to do what they need to do.
The article referenced several underweight infantrymen.
“I had a choice. But I couldn’t leave my squad behind just before they were being deployed,” said Staff Sgt. James Knower, a wiry, 155-pound soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who served in Afghanistan for a year despite injuries to his arm and rotator cuff.
A rail-thin staff sergeant in the same platoon, 130-pound Kenneth Rickman, patrolled with armor and gear that typically weighed between 80 and 90 pounds.
There are several things wrong with a guy carrying 70% of his bodyweight all day, every day. First is the institution that put him in that position. Why would a 130 pound man be tasked with a job in infantry — one that specifically demands that the soldier carry heavy loads long distances on a daily basis? That infantryman may also need to carry classified equipment or, god forbid, another American soldier away from a dangerous situation. Trusting someone who is underweight, and inevitably under-strong, with these tasks is a fault of the institution.
Additionally, it’s a mistake to have a “cry for help” to try and reduce loads. Modern warfare demands significant amounts of equipment ranging from communications gear to mortar rounds and tubes. Realistically the loads won’t be reduced any time soon. Warfare and methods would need to adapt, and this environment of this current war (mountainous terrain in the middle of no where) limits technological adaptation to help a platoon move materials from one place to another. The trait that can be influenced in the short-term — one that will help improve the readiness and capability of the soldier as well as limit their potential for injury — is to have a stronger soldier.
A stronger soldier not only will be able to withstand the rigor of carrying 100 pounds on his back all day (and then dropping a small portion of it to engage an enemy followed by picking it back up and moving to the destination), but it will strengthen the structures to withstand the force and strain of heavy loads. Advocates that fight for the improvement of soldier safety (regarding carrying heavy loads) shouldn’t aim to reduce the load, but to prepare the soldier to handle those loads heavier. In reality, it’s the only thing that can be currently effected — focus on the variables that can actually be controlled.
Most of these young soldiers with withering spines were ill prepared for carrying such loads. It’s not that they didn’t have the experience of carrying loads (they do it in training), but that their structures — muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones — were ill prepared to handle the ongoing stress. It’s one thing to increase the contractile force of your muscles, but it’s another thing to increase the density and capabilities of a structures. Bones will react and adapt to the forces that are placed on them, yet slamming them with 100+ pounds of compression forces without any chance to adapt will result in deteriorating mass and structural stability. Instead, soldiers should use a combination of overall strength training with safe ruck marching loads (sources recommend capping training ruck loads at 50 pounds). Squatting and deadlifting are perfect exercises for preparing the entire spinal column to withstand higher forces, and the training ruck marches can condition that strength for prolonged postural use.
A 130 pound — even 150 pound — guy who hasn’t increased the integrity of his musculoskeletal system is ill prepared for the rigor of deployed ruck handling. What actually should happen is under weight soldiers should be put on a strength training regime to increase their body weight to at least 180 pounds with compound, realistic movements that train the musculature and structures involved in a soldier’s job: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and rowing. It isn’t realistic to begin or maintain a program in an institution like the military. It takes years for large-scale physical fitness trends to permeate, and they don’t have the means for all personnel to get adequately strong anyway. I should point out that doing a leg press or machine row is a poor substitute for effective training. The spine and hips need to be loaded similarly to how they’ll be loaded in the actual job, and that is stabilizing a load that is not constrained to a set track.
It’s unfortunate that many soldiers have lingering effects of courageously carrying massive loads when deployed. The Seattle Times article repeatedly references the musculoskeletal issues, especially on the spine. Good chiropractors that can treat spinal issues as well as the soft tissue surrounding the spinal column should be utilized to help treat battered soldiers. Additionally, they should have effective programs that progressively increase the capabilities of the injured structures to a point where they can handle a load again. Simple, yet intelligent, progressive overload principles over time compounded with skeletal and soft tissue manipulation can help treat these lingering injuries so that the soldiers don’t have to result to pain killers and narcotics to cope (see article).
Alas, changes in the institution’s system will be long, drawn out affairs if they happen at all — it’s just the nature of a large organization responsible for the defense of the United States. Instead, active and former soldiers would do well to educate themselves on how to properly prepare, cope, and rehab with the physical punishment associated with their job. Most veterans who read this site are “in the know” of how to train their body accordingly, but they’d do well to help their friends with these simple, yet helpful lessons. Take responsibility in helping who you can when they will listen. There are thousands and thousands of people around the world that train for the sole purpose of killing Americans, especially American soldiers. We don’t need our lack of proper strength training to kill our soldiers in the field, or slowly killing their spines years after seeing combat.