Army drawdown prompts tough decisions on non-deployable soldiers

The Army is deliberating how to handle non-deployable soldiers while studying soldiers' brain function and performance in the field.

The Army is beginning to examine the issue of non-deployable soldiers as it begins drawing down its forces. Dan Dailey, Sergeant Major of the Army, said the service is trying to strike a balance between increasing efficiency and fulfilling its commitment to these soldiers, most of whom are prevented from deploying due to medical issues.

“The commitment of an individual could be the strongest commitment in the world,” Dailey told Federal News Radio. “But unfortunately their physical ability may not match that commitment. And they want to continue to serve. But we have to make a decision, and that’s where it does become emotional, that’s where it’s tough.”

Dailey said it’s not a question of willingness; the Army is an all-volunteer force, which means by definition every service member is willing to deploy in service to the country. But the primary mission of the military is to fight and win wars, which takes soldiers that are capable of being deployed.

The Army will continue to take care of these soldiers, Dailey said, through the Veterans Affairs Department or transition programs like Soldier for Life. But to be as efficient as possible, 100 percent of soldiers need to be ready to fight. And currently, although Dailey cautioned that it’s a hard number to lock down exactly, the number of non-deployable soldiers stands around 10 percent.

Soldiers could be listed as non-deployable for a variety of reasons. Most qualify for medical reasons, Dailey said, although dental, mental and behavioral also count. Some are classified this way administratively. Soldiers in training programs such as bootcamp also count toward the total, but because those are fluid programs with a steady, expected number of soldiers passing in and out of them, they aren’t considered part of the issue.

“Back to the fundamental question: what as a nation do we expect our soldiers to do?” Dailey said. “Let’s be frank, what we do, when asked to do so, is not fun business, it’s not easy business, it’s tough business.”

And that is why Caroline Mahoney is working with virtual reality systems to study what happens in the minds of soldiers during military operations. Mahoney is team leader for the Cognitive Science and Applications team from the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.

“The mission of our team is to really understand soldier cognitive capabilities and limitations in the unique environments that they operate in,” Mahoney told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And then we take this information and we use it to inform the next generation of design, development and testing for new technologies.”

She said two main questions she seeks to answer are how hard soldiers are working mentally while performing tasks? And how various technologies can ease or worsen that strain?

To do this, she uses a 180-degree half dome, large enough for a person to stand inside and perform some movements. It offers a field of vision slightly wider than the average person’s peripheral vision, and features full surround audio. Mahoney described it as a “high-resolution seamless world.”

“It has a mixed sense of reality with a little bit of a video game look to it,” she said.

Soldiers can interact with the environment, including flora, fauna, structures, vehicles and people through hand- and weapon-based input devices. The environments are based on real places, using actual topographic modeling and satellite imagery.

Within this dome, soldiers are put through scripted scenarios while Mahoney and her team monitor various biological metrics like where soldiers’ eyes are focused, how their pupils change, heart rate, skin response, even electrical activity in the brain through an electroencephalogram cap.  All of this input tells Mahoney how much stress the soldier is experiencing, and how hard their brain is working.

“We’re interested in looking at how particular scenarios or tasks that have to be done in these scenarios, or how particular pieces of technology affect things like your ability to respond quickly to a situation, your ability to make a decision —both quickly and also the correct decision — your ability to potentially withhold an action, for example a decision to shoot or [not] shoot,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney said that this type of study usually occurs in a lab, using a standard computer screen. While it’s not as realistic as a large scale exercise, she said it’s too difficult to control the variables in actual exercises, so researchers can’t get reliable data.

“By having something like this immersive dome capability, we’re able to keep some of that really nice scientific control, but immerse soldiers in these operationally relevant environments,” she said.

And the immersion is only going to improve as virtual reality technology improves. Mahoney said her team is working on adding “redirected walking,” which will allow for more realistic movement in the system. They also expect to have olfactory and tactile immersion in the next two years.

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