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Weight of Combat Gear Is Taking Toll
The military has added to its protective gear in recent years to guard against improvised bombs and other threats common in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that has come with a trade-off, as soldiers and Marines routinely carry more than half their body weight into combat.
Individual Marine combat loads -- including protective gear, weapons, ammunition, water, food and communications gear -- range from 97 to 135 pounds, well over the recommended 50 pounds, a 2007 Navy study found.
In Afghanistan, soldiers routinely carry loads of 130 to 150 pounds for three-day missions, said Jim Stone, acting director of the soldier requirements division at the Army Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga. In Iraq, where patrols are more likely to use vehicles, loads range from 60 to nearly 100 pounds, he said.
"It's like a horse: We can load you down, and you just don't last as long," Stone said.
Injuries -- the bulk of them muscular-skeletal -- are the main cause of hospitalizations and outpatient visits for active-duty Army soldiers, leading to about 880,000 visits per year, according to Army data. The injuries include sprains, stress fractures, inflammation and pain from repetitive use, and they are most common in the lower back, knees, ankles, shoulders and spine. They are one of the leading reasons that soldiers miss duty, said Col. Barbara Springer, director of rehabilitation under the Army surgeon general.
The overall injury rate for active-duty soldiers has increased slightly to 2.2 injuries per soldier each year, according to Bruce Jones, director of injury prevention at the Army Center for Health Promotion & Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Jones confirmed that soldiers "are now carrying heavier loads on our back, so there is a greater opportunity for overuse injuries." And with the rapid pace of deployments, he said, "you get a chronic back injury, then you don't recover before the next cycle. . . . You have to go back to theater 100 percent fit," able to wear the life-saving armor every day.
Sgt. Waarith Abdullah, 34, is struggling to recover at Fort Stewart, Ga., from a lower-back injury that he says was caused by the strain of wearing body armor for long hours each day during three deployments to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah's injury flared up painfully during his most recent 15-month deployment to Balad, Iraq, where he had to maneuver to search vehicles and stand for 12-hour shifts in guard towers.
"That takes a toll on you, because you have to maintain your center of gravity wearing all that stuff and doing your job," said Abdullah, of Miami. He wore a Kevlar helmet, body armor with four plates, a throat and groin protector, and shoulder pads, while carrying 10 pounds of ammunition, a rifle, a flashlight and other gear.
"At times, I did think the equipment we were wearing was heavier than usual, but I'm a soldier and I still do my job," he said. "I think it could be lighter and stronger at the same time."
During the deployment, Abdullah was allowed to go without armor for 30 days, but the pain returned when he started wearing it again. He returned last July to Fort Stewart, where he is in physical therapy. He is still unable to wear armor but hopes to recover in time for his next deployment.