Leadership: March 16, 2004


Continuing a practice first used sixty years ago during World War II, the U.S. Department of Defense periodically conducts extensive opinion polls of the troops. Currently, major polls are conducted every four years. Some of the results from the 2002 poll were recently released. 

- While military personnel still have much healthier eating, exercise and other lifestyle habits than the general population, the percentage of overweight personnel still went up between 1995 and 2002. Part of this can be attributed to the cutting back of the policy of discharging personnel who fail to lose excess weight. During the 1990s, it became quite rare for troops to be discharged for being overweight. An earlier policy was quite draconian and unpopular. Even many commanders felt they could do a better job with overweight troops if they had more leeway. So the policy varies a lot from unit to unit. Combat troops, especially infantry, are expected to stay in very good shape. But in many support units, a few extra pounds may hurt your promotion chances, but won't get you thrown out unless you become obese and are seen as unable or unwilling to reverse the process. 

- One reason for the weight problems has been the increased use of "comfort food" to deal with stress. Some 40 percent of troops reported they used this approach. Regular drug testing over the past two decades has pretty much eliminated controlled substances as a relaxant (only 3.4 percent of troops reported that they still used illegal drugs.) Smoking and alcohol consumption are discouraged. All military buildings are "smoke free" and troops overseas in a combat zone are allowed very little in the way of alcoholic beverages. But while heavy drinking declined from 20.8 percent of troops in 1980 to 15.4 percent in 1998, it has since risen to 18.1 percent in 2002. Troops overseas have created a "moonshine culture" (brewing their own alcoholic beverages, or becoming skilled at getting it, illegally, onto their bases.) This has created more discipline problems, but has not become a major problem. Smoking, which declined from 51 percent in 1980 to 29.9 percent in 1998, has since risen to 33.8 percent in 2002. Smokes are legal, but the military doesn't make it easy for you to get them, or smoke them. But local civilians quickly notice the situation and provide ample supplies of tobacco products. Television viewers noticed many combat troops smoking in Afghanistan and Iraq. The restrictions on smoking indoors have also been informally reduced in the combat zones. While more troops prefer to chow down to deal with stress, many other are afraid the extra poundage could slow them down and be fatal in combat, so they light up. 

- Troops described their military duties as more stressful than their personal or family lives. The most stressful activities were family separation (19.1 percent) and overseas deployment (19 percent.) About half of all the troops are married, so being shipped overseas is a double whammy. The military is also very competitive. Promotions are "up or out" (don't get promoted within a certain time and you have to retire, if you have been in long enough, or leave.) Those who were doing less well in the promotion department were more likely to feel stressed (43.8 percent, versus 25 percent for those who were not.) Those having trouble moving up were also more likely to be injured on the job (14.8 percent versus 7.3 percent.)

- One reason alcohol use was still low was that the troops noted that heavy drinkers had more likely to be less productive (45.1 percent versus 8.2 percent of all troops) and have problems with job related stress anyway (40.1 percent versus 29.6 percent.) Heavy drinkers are also more likely to be depressed (26.4 percent versus 18.0 percent.) But it's also known that not everyone has the same capacity to deal with stress, especially combat stress. In the last century, a lot more has been learned about this subject, and the military tries to screen candidates for high stress jobs (air traffic controller, infantry, bomb disposal, Etc.) to keep out people who can't handle much stress. Moreover, in the last two decades, combat training in the army and air force has gotten much more realistic, and stressful. The navy has always been stressful when the ships are at sea. Flight deck operations on an aircraft carrier are about as stressful as actual combat. 

- The screening of recruits must be working, for some 65 percent of military personnel said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their current military assignment. There was some variation among the services (Army-60.9 percent, Navy 63.6 percent, Marine Corps- 66.3, Air Force- 72 percent.) Men and women had the same job satisfaction. Some 54 percent of the troops said they were likely or very likely to stay in the military if they could.

You don't always think of the military as a highly competitive organization, but the American armed forces certainly are. But that's the major reason why the troops are so successful. The hard training and exacting leadership has long been known to be a decisive edge in combat. The old adage "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war" also applies to stress. 




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