About 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers in Alaska are wearing special wrist devices that track daily strain and stress as part of a study to measure the mental health of troops operating in extreme cold environments.
Paratroopers from the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, have teamed up with WHOOP, a Boston-based human performance company, in a six-month study with the University of Queensland.
The study is designed to gather physiological data to "uncover insights that will create a blueprint for how soldiers train, fight, and manage stress in the most extreme military conditions," according to a news release from WHOOP.
"Previous research has typically focused on investigating stress in laboratory settings using standardized stress tasks," Kristen Holmes, vice president of Performance Science at WHOOP and principal investigator on the study, said in the release.
"We are carrying this study out in the field to better understand how personal, psychological and situational factors can impact a soldier while training during extreme Arctic conditions," she said. "We are proud to support our troops in an innovative way, and this data could be a critical tool for the military to improve soldier resiliency at a time when mental health issues and suicide rates are higher than ever."
The Army has struggled with morale issues unique to Alaska. A military behavioral health team conducted a review in 2019 that looked at 11 suicides at Fort Wainwright between January 2014 and March 2019, but failed to pinpoint definitive causes.
Military commanders in January ordered alcohol sales to cease after 10 p.m. at Elmendorf-Richardson and Wainwright in an effort to control drinking-related mental health issues such as suicide.
For this study, soldiers in Alaska are wearing the WHOOP Strap 3.0, a 24/7 health monitor built to withstand the rigors of military use, according to the release. The device is waterproof and features a five-day battery life but does not have a wireless signal, GPS or geolocation capabilities, the release states.
The research project will analyze personalized data such as heart rate variability, resting heart rate, cardiovascular strain and respiratory rate. Leaders from the squad level and above will have access to the data collected to monitor the daily strain, recovery rates and sleep quality of their paratroopers to get a truer picture of readiness levels, according to the release.
"Imagine as a squad leader that you have a paratrooper that has had an abnormally low recovery for several days," 4th BCT's Command Sgt. Maj. Alex Kupratty said in the release. "Maybe your platoon has been in the field for weeks, or the paratrooper just returned from an Army school. Now, you have the data to better help them recover, or to adjust your training to match the team's needs."
The paratroopers themselves will also have immediate access to their own data to help them make better decisions to improve their personal performance, the release states.
"WHOOP provides seamless and highly reliable biometric capture, thereby producing objective measures of sleep quality and recovery, which are of central importance to our research," William von Hippel, lead investigator on the study and professor at The University of Queensland, said in the release. "Once the data are analyzed, we hope to uncover insights the military could leverage to enhance training regimens and maximize soldier preparedness."
This is not the first study using high-tech wrist sensors that has involved soldiers. About 530 members of 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, are participating in a yearlong human performance study that has them wearing special watches and rings that track not just their physical exertion, but also how their heart rate responds to stress.
The division partnered with the Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center and the Army Medical Research and Development Command as part of the Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness (MASTR-E) program.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.