Optimizing sleep as a Soldier: The science, challenges and significance

A Soldier sleeps as he readies to deploy.

Sleep in the deployed environment and historical military attitudes

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Deployed Soldiers who may get only four to five hours of sleep per night do not receive as much of the end-of-night rapid eye movement sleep as someone who is getting seven to eight hours of sleep, which can affect daily performance and have a negative impact over time.

Nonlinear sleep-wake schedules are common in a deployed environment, which can be challenging to manage.

 “There are many external factors which are outside a service member’s control, but that should not mean we are resigned to feeling that sleep should be sacrificed,” said Lt. Col. Scott Williams, director of the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience, at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “Sleep should be a priority, especially when not deployed, and all individuals can benefit from these strategies regardless of whether or not they are in the military.”

To better understand the needs of Soldiers in the field, WRAIR researchers have embedded with units both stateside and in combat zones like Afghanistan to provide advice regarding managing sleep and help understand the needs of Soldiers to design future research.

That research aims to improve effectiveness in combat, where even small changes like using melatonin properly or knowing when to take caffeine before a mission can improve a Soldier’s readiness and a unit’s readiness.

The Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience also researches the connections between mental health and mission readiness. In the past, Army culture has sometimes viewed the need for sleep as a weakness or liability instead of seeing sleep as a potential combat enabler. As a result, Soldiers were expected to push through sleepiness, even when it wasn’t necessary, which affected performance.

“We are really bad at self-monitoring our functionality and performance because there is a large disconnect between your objective performance when you’re sleeping and your subjective feelings of tiredness,” said Dr. Janna Mantua, CMPN Operational Research Team, lead scientist. “This lack of awareness, lack of education and the culture of toughness all contribute to the disassociation between how we feel and how we perform.”

It is important to note that there are resources and people who work to see ensure that Soldiers are at their peak health prior to deployment. Mental health providers, leaders and fellow Soldiers all play a key role to their mental readiness. Even under stressful situations, it’s important to seek help and address any mental health concerns before the concerns are irreversible.

“[Soldiers] are highly focused on physical fitness because it is easily measured and leaders can easily understand how this translates to effectiveness on the battlefield,” Williams said. “Until we have enough experimentation, enough data and enough publicity to make everyone aware that doing things while drowsy is one of the most common dangers and fatal things we do on a regular basis, there will be a lot more work to do at WRAIR.”

Although sleep researchers and clinicians at WRAIR have demonstrated the value of sleep among Soldiers, changing the approach and narrative surrounding mental health in the military is still a work in progress.

“I think we would be fooling ourselves if we think that there is no longer a stigma against seeking behavioral health treatment and I think we have to be honest about that.” Williams said. “People fear they are not deployable which would hurt the unit and their pride so they pretend like there is nothing wrong.”


This article is the second of a series that explores the relationship between sleep and mental health and how this correlation affects Soldier and unit readiness.