As the US gets more and more deeply entangled in battlefields across the world, the country's army is also getting increasingly worried.
Apart from deaths and injuries under enemy fire, any number of soldiers are also hurt during training.
They get sprained ankles, torn ligaments and stress fractures just like competitive athletes. So the army has opened a laboratory that applies the science of sports medicine to the battlefield. The Injury Prevention and Performance Enhancement Laboratory is situated in Fort Campbell.
Scott Lephart, the project's principal researcher from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center noted that the Department of Defense found that musculoskeletal injuries — sprains, tears, fractures — accounted for more than half of all unintentional injuries to soldiers.
"These were very similar to the injuries we had been studying for the last 20 years in the sports medicine arena," Lephart said.
Through a $2.75 million grant, 900 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell will be tested in the lab, but also during training on base and after they return from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much of the information about the soldiers' endurance, speed, balance and other physical abilities will be completely new, Lephart said.
"We don't know what the ideal body fat is for a soldier yet. We know what is the ideal for a point guard or a marathoner. They all need different body compositions to optimally perform," Lephart said.
The tests are designed to recreate the most problematic activities for soldiers, usually repetitive motions that can cause strain on knees, backs and shoulders. Soldiers in the 101st learn to rappel and jump from helicopters, and those landings can be dangerous.
"We know that the landing techniques will increase the likelihood of injury if they are done inappropriately," Lephart said.
In a trial designed to test these landing techniques, a soldier had small reflective balls tagged to his legs. As he jumped off a small platform, high-speed cameras captured his landing and a computer animation showed the force on his muscles and knees.
Another soldier who demonstrated an upper-body strength test, Sgt. Eurace Burnett, 32, twisted his knee several times during multiple jumps out of helicopters, both in training and in combat.
"Once in a while it would swell up, but now I can't jump anymore because of the knee injury," he said.
Researchers hope to develop training programs that soldiers can begin before their next deployment overseas, which is scheduled to begin as soon as this fall for some soldiers at the base.