Weight of Combat Gear Is Taking Toll

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Carrying heavy combat loads is taking a quiet but serious toll on troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, contributing to injuries that are sidelining them in growing numbers, according to senior military and defense officials.

Rising concern over the muscle and bone injuries -- as well as the hindrance caused by the cumbersome gear as troops maneuver in Afghanistan's mountains -- prompted Army and Marine Corps leaders and commanders to launch initiatives last month that will introduce lighter equipment for some U.S. troops.

As the military prepares to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan -- including sending as many as 20,000 more Marines -- fielding a new, lighter vest and helmet is a top priority, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said recently. "We are going to have to lighten our load," he said, after inspecting possible designs during a visit to the Quantico Marine base.

Army leaders and experts say the injuries -- linked to the stress of bearing heavy loads during repeated 12- or 15-month combat tours -- have increased the number of soldiers categorized as "non-deployable." Army personnel reported 257,000 acute orthopedic injuries in 2007, up from 247,000 the previous year.

As injuries force more soldiers to stay home, the Army is having a harder time filling units for upcoming deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the service's vice chief of staff.

"There is no doubt that [in] our non-deployable rates, we're seeing increase," he said. "I don't want to see it grow any more."

The number of total non-deployables has risen by an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 since 2006, putting the current figure at about 20,000, according to Chiarelli. "That occurs when you run the force at the level we're running it now," he said.

"You can't hump a rucksack at 8,000 to 11,000 feet for 15 months, even at a young age, and not have that have an impact on your body, and we are seeing an increase in muscular-skeletal issues," Chiarelli told reporters last month.

The top U.S. commander for eastern Afghanistan, where the bulk of U.S. troops in the country operate, has issued a formal request, known as an operational needs statement, for lighter body armor for troops there. The new equipment, called a "plate carrier," would protect vital organs and weigh less than 20 pounds. It would not include additional pieces that troops currently use to shield sides, shoulders, arms, the groin and other areas -- pieces that, with a helmet, weigh about 35 pounds.

Commanders would determine in what circumstances troops could wear the lighter gear, which would make it easier to maneuver when pursuing insurgents over rugged terrain at high altitudes.

"Our dismounted operations are occurring at very high elevations, 10,000 feet and higher, where the air is thinner and it is difficult already to maneuver. You add to that body armor, ammunition and the full load that soldiers carry -- it is difficult," said a military official familiar with the request. "You are operating against an enemy that is very agile -- running around in tennis shoes, if that -- and they are fleet of foot and can move faster and elude us," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the request had not yet been approved.

Pietro Tonino, chief of sports medicine at Loyola University Health System in suburban Chicago, agreed that the loads troops carry would "absolutely" predispose them to muscular-skeletal injuries over time. "They will get stress fractures or overuse injuries of the back, the legs, the foot," Tonino said. "Recruits get these stress fractures in their feet all the time just from walking."

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