During Muhammad Ali’s boxing career, he was quoted as saying he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” meaning he had the ability to move so quickly that his opponent “can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” How does this apply to preparing and training soldiers for America’s next war?
Whether facing an anti-access/area denial campaign, a megacity battle or a multitheater war, the one constant is the soldier remains the most prized weapon system in the U.S. Army. As the Army prepares for more austere and expeditionary missions, decisions and actions made by soldiers and leaders will continue to serve as the bedrock, or potentially the Achilles’ heel, of the service’s ability to win wars. As the Army trains for the physical, cognitive and emotional requirements for this uncertain and unknown future mission, should soldiers “float like a butterfly” or “sting like a bee”?
The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is like the transition a new soldier must undergo to reach full potential. Once ready to deploy, a butterfly (like a soldier) is a magnificent creature to watch. A butterfly can fly up to 30 mph and travel thousands of miles with pinpoint navigational accuracy. Although the flight of the butterfly is quite remarkable, its fate is its unsustainable performance and resilience. The average butterfly dies within 14 days.
Part of the butterfly’s decline relates to its inability to sleep. Like a butterfly, we know a typical soldier’s physical, cognitive and emotional performance degrades after being awake for 19 consecutive hours, or if they get less than five hours of nightly sleep over five days. Insufficient sleep quickly results in a 20 percent cognitive decline, equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.08.
Sleep Is the Ammunition
After a three-day Mungadai field exercise, the average soldier’s performance declined to the point that their errors identifying and shooting targets increased by 220 percent, errors in shooting at phantom targets increased by 164 percent, decision-making errors increased by 86 percent and reaction time decreased by 22 percent, according to the Army surgeon general’s 2015 “Health Readiness and the System for Health Playbook.”
Lack of sleep can create a deadly combination in a war zone as sleep is the ammunition the brain needs to be able to generate novel solutions, recognize failed solutions, anticipate problems, plan and prioritize efforts, judge risk, solve problems, maintain vigilance, attend to details, multitask, concentrate and focus, stabilize emotions, maintain motivation and minimize response time.
On the other hand, bees sleep five to eight hours daily to maintain their endurance and performance. Like humans, a bee dreams and creates memories during sleep as it transfers what it observed that day from short-term to long-term memories. The 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, returned from the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La., in March 2017 where some soldiers implemented sleep mission planning, allowing them to get the most uninterrupted sleep possible.
Based on an anonymous unit survey, soldiers who implemented sleep mission planning demonstrated a positive relationship between sleep banking before going to the JRTC with self-assessed job performance, satisfaction with personal achievement during their time at the JRTC, and decreased safety concerns. Sleep banking is getting more sleep than usual in the two weeks before an event when insufficient sleep is expected.
Col. Anthony Lugo, the brigade combat team’s commander, said, “Sleep mission planning was one of several factors that made a positive impact on our performance at JRTC.” A study conducted at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., confirmed those results. That study found no company-sized element was evaluated as above average without sleeping at least four hours per night, and most companies that rated above average had commanders who focused on sleep and personally got between four to five hours of sleep per night while in the box.
Fuel for the Soldier
For the butterfly and the bee, nutrition is critical for sustained performance. Similar to military units, bees swarm and provide mass provisioning to sustain performance. Key for butterflies and bees is frequent fueling for performance. The Army recently introduced Modular Operational Ration Enhancement (MORE) rations to help soldiers sustain performance between meals—especially when calories from MREs are not sufficient for the deployed environment (altitude, cold and/or heat) or the requirements of the mission.
The MORE ration of high-energy snacks was developed in response to feedback from leaders who saw their soldiers losing a significant amount of weight while operating in high stress or extreme conditions. The 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, has successfully integrated the new rations into mission planning. Col. Robert Ryan, the brigade commander, said the “rations have been a game- changer. The MORE ration provides a high-carbohydrate meal to sustain energy through extended operations and has quickly become the preferred energy source while conducting expeditionary operations. MORE meals are easier to carry, easier to eat on the go, and provide access to caffeine for those late-night guard duties. There is still a leadership challenge as the MORE ration remains only a supplement to the high-calorie MRE.”
From an activity and performance perspective, there are many areas in which the soldier’s physical performance should match the adaptability of a butterfly. A butterfly can adjust its speed between 5 to 30 mph, it remains camouflaged to evade predators and it can navigate using the sun as a compass. On the flip side, a butterfly can fly only in daylight and when its temperature is over 81 degrees.
Bee-nefits of Being Bees
Soldiers must own the night and be able to overcome the obstacles of heat, cold and altitude to master the environmental demands of the battlefield. Perhaps soldiers’ performance should more reflect the flight of the bee, which seems to defy physics. A bee must beat its wings up to 230 times per second to fly; its flight was believed to violate aerodynamic theory for years. Bees utilize multiple systems to navigate (i.e., the sun, polarization of the blue sky, and magnetic fields) to ensure pinpoint navigation accuracy.
Similar to an Army squad, the accomplishments of a bee colony exceed anything a single bee can achieve. For example, a strong bee colony flies the equivalent distance from the Earth to the moon daily. Mission Command and the division of labor are critical to survival of a bee colony. The survival of the colony requires a queen as well as drone, worker, cleaning, nursing and security bees. Similar to the underlying constructs of Mission Command, the impact of a bee colony can best be summarized by Aristotle’s quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
According to the Army’s 2017 “Health of the Force Report,” the service is sleep-deprived. Only 23 percent of soldiers get adequate sleep compared to the 70 percent of American adults who get sufficient sleep. Even the superiority of the bee in flight can be hampered by limited sleep. A sleep-deprived bee forgets how to perform activities that should be second nature, generating issues with navigation, communication and fueling.
One sleep-deprived bee can place the colony at risk. In humans, the increased risk associated with sleep deprivation accounts for 25 percent of motor vehicle accidents. Army aviation units have embraced this well-known fact by their enforcement of crew-rest requirements. It should be no surprise that Fort Rucker, Ala., has consistently recorded the best sleep across the Army. Col. Thomas Burke, 25th Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade commander, said, “Sleep is not only critical for ensuring our lethality on the battlefield, but for ensuring the safety of our crews and aircraft. To that end, sleep is truly a weapon.”
Just over 17 percent of active-component soldiers are considered obese, and less than 25 percent of soldiers in a pilot program meet the Army surgeon general’s nutrition targets, according to the “Health of the Force” report, meaning some soldiers might be overweight and undernourished at the same time. Performance nutrition starts with education and food opportunities in garrison. Dining facilities that embrace “Go for Green”—new DoD menu standards and the nudging of diners to make better choices—can help make healthy and high-performance foods the easy choice.
“Proper fueling of our soldiers is not only important to optimize their performance, but the lack of good nutrition increases injury rates and decreases performance,” said Col. Dennis Leveque, 25th Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade commander. “We need to strive to be better than the restaurants in our community. Improving our [dining facilities] improves readiness. It is about effectiveness of the [dining facility]; efficiency should not be our metric. The return on investment is the creation of healthier soldiers. The key is that optimal nutrition must taste good and be readily available. We hope to make the [dining facility] the establishment of choice, which will also save soldiers from spending their money elsewhere for food.”
Despite daily unit physical training, one in 20 soldiers fails the Army Physical Fitness Test on an annual basis, and these soldiers are 279 percent less likely to be medically ready to deploy, according to the Army surgeon general’s 2015 “Health Readiness and the System for Health Playbook.” Unit physical training is critical in building physical stamina and serves as the foundation of awaking the warrior spirit. How we train and leverage the golden hour of physical training each morning is critical. Are we training soldiers like tactical athletes?
Holistic Health and Fitness
Ryan recently created a Combat Readiness Training Facility and obstacle course within it. “We expect soldiers to be fit, but we don’t provide the venue for them to work through physical ailments while still increasing their physical fitness. Our [Combat Readiness Training Facility] is the critical component to our holistic health and fitness program as it provides the equipment, the resources and the trained professionals to allow our leaders to leverage the best sports science for our soldiers’ recovery and sustained performance,” Ryan said. “The [Combat Readiness Training Facility] has helped us build both physical and mental prowess, which has enhanced our combat capability.”
Unit physical training builds squad and platoon readiness. Poor physical training can lead to increased injuries and decreased readiness. Overall, 52 percent of soldiers are injured each year, leading to 10 million limited duty days, according to “Health of the Force.” Musculoskeletal injuries account for 73 percent of all disability cases and are the leading reason for discharge from the military. Early intervention and science- based reconditioning physical training at the battalion and brigade level can help speed up recovery and return to duty.
“We saw a 72 percent decrease in overall personnel on profile by integrating an early reconditioning physical readiness training program and ensuring our Master Fitness Trainers were trained in how to optimize reconditioning profile physical training to enhance readiness. This has led to improved readiness across our brigade,” said Col. Matthew Stader, 25th Infantry Division artillery commander.
Readiness Starts at Home
Since readiness starts at home, tools and resources to ensure Army families are healthy are critical for the future fight. These tools and resources are shared at Community Information Exchanges, Family Readiness Groups and community events across the installation. The Army Wellness Center is a critical resource for providing health evaluations, education and coaching for soldiers and families.
Based on documented human dimension requirements for the future fight, does your unit train more like the limited flight of the butterfly or the improved performance of a bee colony? Do leaders integrate sleep mission planning during field exercises and challenge the current sleep culture? Do units apply the leading science to improve soldier and team performance? As a more expeditionary mindset is developed, is training meant to ensure the enemy “can’t hit what the eyes can’t see”?
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Maj. Gen. Ronald Clark is commander of the 25th Infantry Division and U.S. Army Hawaii. He has commanded at every level from company to division and has held key staff positions at the tactical, operational and strategic level. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and earned a master’s degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He served as a U.S. Army War College Fellow at Duke University, N.C., and is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Seminar XXI National Security Studies Program.
Col. Deydre S. Teyhen is commander of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Md. She previously commanded the U.S. Army Health Clinic at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. She is a physical therapist who is board-certified in orthopedics. She has a doctorate from the University of Texas and a doctor of physical therapy degree from Baylor University, Texas.