December 1, 2010: The U.S. Army is facing another, and rather poignant, drug menace. It seems a growing number of infantry troops are using steroids, to help them build muscle mass, so that they can better handle the loads they have to carry in combat. For most of these troops, the additional muscle is seen as a matter of life and death. But there are short term (mood swings, especially irritability and increased aggressiveness) and long term (hypertension, damage to the heart or liver) risks from steroid use. Even so, many troops accept the risks, in order to obtain a little more speed in combat. Speed is often the key to survival out there.
All this is nothing new. Troops have been taking ability enhancing drugs for nearly a century. Amphetamines have been the most popular, as sheer fatigue has long been a major, and often fatal, problem on the battlefield. But dealing with stress is nearly as big a problem. An effective anti-stress pill would be welcomed on the battlefield, for it would increase chances of survival in an often fatal occupation.
The demand for steroids arose because the latest generation of body armor, and the need to carry around lots of ammo and water, meant troops were spending many hours running around, carrying lots of weight. Moreover, most of the combat in Iraq was urban, meaning a lot of running up stairs, and jumping through windows. In Afghanistan you get the same conditions, but hills replacing all those stairs. What military physical conditioning experts are also noting are the changes in training among professional athletes. The military has long taken their physical training clues from what professional, and college, athletes are doing. And what those well prepared civilians are doing are exercises to make people most ready for exactly what they have to do. This not only makes the troops more capable in combat, but reduces injuries from sprains, pulled muscles and the like.
The army doesn't want to add steroid testing to its current random drug test program, because of the high cost. But the brass do know there are a growing number of steroid users. A troop survey in 2005 showed 1.5 percent used, while another survey three years later showed 2.5 percent. Steroid use, and getting buff for combat, has grown quickly in the last two years. In some infantry battalions, as many as half the troops are apparently using steroids. There's no easy, or cheap, solution to this problem.
Every time there's a war, things happen that, in hindsight, should have been so obvious. Case in point is the load infantry are carrying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subtle changes in tactics because of the introduction of new weapons and equipment. Turns out that the troops were not in the best physical shape for the loads they are carrying, and the work they do. The physical conditioning the troops have been getting for years needs to be changed. It's a different kind of war, and the troops, despite all the running and weight work they do, are not in the best shape for it.
Thus the interest in developing new physical training programs that will aid guys who have to hump over a hundred pounds of body armor, weapons and equipment up several flights of stairs, dive over furniture, or quickly hit the ground during a firefight. The U.S. Marine Corps and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) are already working on such programs, and so is the army, if only to discourage the perceived need to use steroids.