SEATTLE — A newspaper report says combat soldiers are carrying too much weight, leading to increasing injuries.
The report by the Seattle Times found that the number of soldiers medically retired from the Army with at least one musculoskeletal condition increased nearly tenfold from 2003 to 2009, according to Army statistics.
The heavy loads contributed to rising numbers of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans retiring with degenerative arthritis, cervical strains and other musculoskeletal injuries. The newspaper estimated that disability benefits for these injuries exceed $500 million annually.
Since returning to western Washington 2½ years ago after serving in Iraq, Spc. Joseph Chroniger has been diagnosed with bone spurs in the vertebrae of his neck caused by a degenerative arthritic condition. While on patrol in Iraq, Chroniger carried about 70 to 80 pounds, including his body armor, his M14 rifle, radio batteries, food and ammunition.
"This is ridiculous," Chroniger said. "I’m only 25 years old. Arthritis is supposed to happen when you get old. What’s it going to be like when I’m 50 or 60?"
An Army Science Board study in 2001 recommended that no soldiers carry more than 50 pounds. Yet the Times said a 2003 Army study found that soldiers on extended foot patrols carry an average load ranging from 87 to 127 pounds.
A study led by a Johns Hopkins University researcher found that nearly one-third of all medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 through 2007 resulted from musculoskeletal, connective-tissue or spinal injuries. That was more than double the number of evacuations from combat injuries.
In 2003, Col. Charles Dean, a military-equipment expert, formed a team to study the weight worn in the combat zones of eastern Afghanistan. His report noted that if the Army didn’t undertake a program to lighten loads, "physical performance will continue to be even more severely degraded."
The Army has launched programs to develop lighter gear, but at the same time beefed up body armor and other measures. It was unclear what headway was made over the next six years.
It also has sought to prevent injuries by improving soldiers’ conditioning, where soldiers exercise or run with full body armor and other gear while training.
Staff Sgt. James Knower, a wiry, 155-pound soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord served in Afghanistan for a year despite injuries to his arm and rotator cuff. His injuries worsened while carrying loads in Afghanistan; his right arm often went numb while on patrols through the Arghandab Valley in southern Afghanistan.
"Basically, it comes down to: If you want to do your job — and you take pride in what you do — you’ve just got to suck it up," said Knower, 29.
A staff sergeant in the same platoon, 130-pound Kenneth Rickman, patrolled with gear that typically weighed between 80 and 90 pounds. Earlier in his Army career, the 35-year-old suffered a pinched nerve while carrying his gear in Iraq and then a cracked vertebra in his spine while back in the United States. In Afghanistan, he injured his shoulder when he fell off a roof with his gear on.
He described the pain as bone-on-bone grinding. He gradually ditched gear, leaving behind extra batteries, ammo magazines and switching to a lighter rifle.
Finally, he headed back to Washington state and underwent a spinal-fusion operation and the removal of a ruptured disc. "I told them I had had enough. I was done," Rickman said.
For some soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the combination of chronic pain and opiates to treat their physical injuries can push them deeper into despair. Judith Gorman believes the pain contributed to her son’s suicide.
Orrin Gorman McClellan, a veteran of the war in eastern Afghanistan, returned to Whidbey Island with severe PTSD. He took an opiate he obtained online, but it failed to relieve his muscle and back pain. In May 2009, he committed suicide at the age of 25.
"One of the things that he was angry about was that he always hurt," Gorman said. "He never really got a break."
The Army has been searching for ways to improve the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries, according to the Times. It has created teams of physical therapists and other specialists to serve with infantry brigades in combat areas, and it stepped up screening for serious injuries at clinics.
"The faster you can address some of those issues at the clinic level, the less likely the soldier is to need hospital-level care … in the theater (or need) to be evacuated," said Col. Stephen Bolt, Madigan Army Medical Center’s chief of the department of anesthesia and operative services.
The Army also is trying to reduce the use of opiates for pain. An Army report recommended the increased use of alternatives, including chiropractic care, massage, meditation and acupuncture