Pressed about skeletal injuries, Army chief cites soldiers' poor health

The Senate’s top appropriator is concerned about injuries spawned by the weight of gear soldiers carry into combat, but Army brass say the poor health of America’s youth is to blame also.

As the Army and other military services have fielded more and more advanced combat gear -- especially electronics equipment -- U.S. troops have been instructed to strap more and more weight to their bodies.

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That means injuries, which does not sit well with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a decorated World War II Army veteran. He said his combat pack and gear never weighed more than 25 pounds.

The average Army trooper’s gear now approaches 125 pounds, Inouye said, noting a 2001 Army Science Board study recommended no soldier should carry more than 50 pounds at a time.

During an Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Inouye told Army leaders he was “shocked” by a recent Johns Hopkins University study that found musculoskeletal spinal injuries are now “double that of combat injuries.”

What’s more, “musculoskeletal injuries have increased tenfold in the last four years,” Inouye said. “The cost of medical benefits or disability benefits exceed annually $500 million.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey replied that the matter is a “constant issue” for service leaders, and one that crosses his desk at least once a week.

“We’ve made some progress with plate carriers, the weight of the helmet, the weight of optics on the rifle, the weight of the boots,” Dempsey told Inouye. “But, frankly, those are kind of marginal changes.”

The new Army chief acknowledged soldiers’ loads have swelled in recent years because they have been ordered to carry more and more electronics equipment -- which means batteries and power sources.

“We’ve introduced so many new emitters that we’ve increased the burden, because of batteries required to run the emitters, because we’ve connected the soldier to this network,” the chief said.

One way to ease the load might be to develop and field some kind of “automotive mule” that would carry a portion of the gear instead of individual troopers, Dempsey said.

But as the hearing was about to be gaveled closed, Dempsey brought up another factor in the spike in injuries.

“We’ve also discovered young men and women coming into the Army are not as fit or skeletally sound as you were,” the top Army officer told Inouye.

He chalked that up to “the proliferation of bad nutritional habits and carbonated beverages.”

“Even in basic training, before we load the soldier with the gear… we have these same musculoskeletal injuries,” Dempsey said. “It’s really a generation of young Americans that have this problem, but it’s exacerbated by this load that we ask them to bear.”

The Centers for Disease Control found that 17 percent of U.S. individuals ages two through 19 were obese in 2008. Experts say those figures have likely risen since CDC last compiled obesity data.