Army Readiness Eroded By Increasing Numbers of Medically Unfit Soldiers

WASHINGTON — As troops are being drawn down, even while the demand on the force continues, a growing percentage of Army troops are medically unfit for duty, Army officials said at the recent Association of the U.S. Army 2011 Annual Meeting and Exposition.

Capt. Alisha Harvey (right), physical therapy clinic chief, 47th Combat Support Hospital, from Richmond VA., uses a muscular system diagram as a visual for a soldier after his physical therapy treatment on Contingency Operating Base Adder. – Photo by Spc. Anthony T. Zane

About 30% of the National Guard and Reserve and as many as 15% of the active-duty force are not able to deploy for medical reasons, with musculoskeletal injuries being the most common cause. Body mass and nutritional deficits also contribute to the problem, they said. Frequent headaches also can be an issue.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, MD, noted medically unfit soldiers is a problem that “has begun to erode the readiness of the Army as a whole.” It is an issue, he said, that the leadership of the Army has “identified as a major problem” and one that Army medical officials are tackling.

“We begin to see a growing number of medically non-ready soldiers with a smaller population of soldiers overall available for continued demand for deployment,” he said.

In addition to severely injured soldiers in Warrior Transition Units, Brig. Gen. Brian Lein, command surgeon at U.S. Forces Command explained that there are medically nondeployable soldiers who are going to the medical evaluation or physical evaluation board but whose injuries are not complex enough to go into a Warrior Transition Unit; soldiers who are returning from deployment who have medical issues that need attention; and soldiers who are available for deployment by Army regulation but are not able to deploy because of a medical condition that bars them from entering a combat theater.

“As that temporary end-strength draws down slowly over the course of the next several years, if we don’t get our arms around the nondeployable population and the biggest population, the medically nondeployable population, we’re going to have a significant problem manning our units to be able to get them to go downrange,” he said. 

Army Medicine Addresses Medically Nondeployable

The Army is addressing this problem on several fronts. Maj. Gen. Richard Stone, deputy surgeon general for mobilization, said an electronic-profile system now allows leaders to track medical readiness of units. Secondly, all medical readiness standards are in an electronic system called The Medical Protection System (MEDPROS), which tracks all immunization, medical readiness and deployability data for all Active and Reserve components of the Army, as well as civilians, contractors and others.

“We have unprecedented visibility of the Army through those two tools,” he said.

Stone said the Army also is looking at other areas to improve the health of the force and prevent injury. That includes ways to prevent and manage musculoskeletal injuries, which are the main reasons for evacuation from theater, according to Stone. Each year, the Army has more than 1 million visits to military facilities each year for musculoskeletal injuries, with the impact of these injuries putting 68,000 soldiers on limited duty, he said.

In ongoing studies, Stone said, Army Medicine has developed a way to determine which soldiers are prone to musculoskeletal injuries by screening factors such as agility, strength, core strength, arch height, leaping ability and sprint ability.

“You can actually predict, based on the upcoming mission, what the potential is for injury,” he said. “In about a five-day period, you can look at an entire brigade combat team and then predict to the commander their injury rate.”

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