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Stress injuries rising due to huge combat loads

/ Source: The Associated Press

An increasing number of soldiers are being sidelined with muscle and bone injuries caused by carrying combat loads weighing as much as 130 pounds, a senior Army official said Wednesday.

Research is being done to determine how many troops are affected by weight-related stress fractures, sprains and other orthopedic problems that prevent them from shipping out with their units, said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff.

The numbers are likely to keep going up as more soldiers are sent to Afghanistan, where the terrain, elevation and road conditions are much more challenging than in Iraq, Chiarelli said during a hearing by the House appropriations defense subcommittee.

The wear-and-tear injuries have not affected the Army’s ability to field effective combat units, he said. But Chiarelli and other service officials want to reverse the trend by lightening the load troops carry.

That means buying less heavy and more comfortable body armor, lighter weapons and ammunition, and unmanned vehicles that can carry supplies into combat zones.

Possible factors

While soldiers and Marines lug about the same amount of gear, Army troops appear to be suffering more musculoskeletal injuries than Marines. Chiarelli said the difference is likely due to the Army’s longer deployment times. Tours of duty for soldiers are typically 12 to 15 months; Marines usually deploy for about seven.

Another factor is poor aerobic fitness. Army recruits, even those who appear to be in peak physical condition, get stress fractures and other injuries during basic combat training because their bones are not ready for the demands of running and jumping, Chiarelli said.

Since 2006, the number of soldiers unable to deploy has increased between 2,000 and 3,000, he said. Overall, the Army has 20,000 so-called “non-deployables.”

Roughly half were wounded in combat or have serious medical conditions. The other half have less serious injuries and includes those with physical problems caused by hauling heavy loads.

“When you start to see more of these injuries, you want to attack what you need to (and) get rid of them,” Chiarelli said. “Every non-deployable soldier we have is an issue for us.”

Concern over weight

While the Marine Corps isn’t seeing as many injuries caused by heavy loads, service officials are still concerned over the amount of weight troops carry. The more weight they carry, the less able they are to chase down a fast-moving enemy.

Gen. James Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, who also testified before the subcommittee, said a standard Marine infantryman has about 90 pounds of gear on him.

Amos cited an extreme case where a mortarman lugged 142 pounds of equipment.

The rule of thumb is ground troops should never carry more than 50 percent of their body weight, he said.

“This has been a problem for infantrymen that goes all the way back to the days of Alexander the Great,” Amos said. “It’s something we’re struggling with.”