Injuries to muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons—also called musculoskeletal injuries (MSK-I)—on deployment are a big issue for Military Service Members and their commands. During Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, nonbattle MSK-Is were the No. 1 reason for MEDEVAC from theater. About 35% of all MEDEVACs were due to MSK-Is, compared to 18% from battle injuries. Most of these injuries happened during physical training and recreational sports.
Physical fitness and injury prevention
Some injuries are easier to prevent than others. When you go up for a rebound playing basketball and land on another person’s foot and roll your ankle, there isn’t much you can do to prevent the sprain. Accidents happen. Some sudden (also called acute) injuries, or injuries that happen as a result of a single incident, can be prevented by improving your fitness slowly, over time. The same goes for many chronic injuries usually caused by overuse. For acute injuries, you might be better able to avoid a collision with another person or recover from stepping in a hole on the field if you aren’t as fatigued when it happens. For overuse injuries, improving your fitness can help your body recover from work and exercise faster and more effectively. Think about it like taking 2 steps forward and one step back. As your fitness improves, you start to take 3–4 steps forward, and still only one step back.
When it comes to improving fitness for a deployment, ideally, you’ll want to start training several months before you deploy. It can take 3–4 weeks to see improvements, and closer to 10–12 weeks to see the big improvements necessary to reduce your injury risk. If it’s too late to train before you leave, deployment can still be a good time to start a new fitness routine. If your unit is running at a lower OPTEMPO and you have extra down time, you can use that time to your benefit by going to the gym. But the extra time spent lifting can also be why there are so many injuries in deployed settings. Working out too much without building in rest days and recovery weeks can lead to overtraining and overuse injuries. Stay smart when you’re making your deployment fitness routine, and don’t overdo it.
Injury prevention programs
Injury prevention programs (IPPs) are usually done as dynamic warm-ups before a workout. They should be a staple in any deployment fitness routine, whether you’re working out on your own, or you play pick-up sports with others. For a group of 20 people playing a sport weekly, doing an injury-prevention dynamic warm-up can prevent 1–2 injuries over a 3-month period. That translates to preventing up to 10 injuries for a company over 3 months of deployment.
Preventing injuries over the course of a deployment is a force multiplier when it comes to unit readiness too. Even if injuries aren’t severe enough to require MEDEVAC from theater, fewer injuries mean more people ready for daily missions. And more people available allows more rest and recovery for those who aren’t working, and more people available to cover down when somebody gets hurt. The hardest part of doing an IPP isn’t doing it yourself, it’s getting others in your unit to do it as well. IPPs are a numbers game, meaning the more people who do them, and the more time is spent doing them, the better they work.
Be smart when you’re working out during deployment. Even though deployment can be a good opportunity to get into better shape, know your limits and don’t overdo it. By keeping yourself and your teammates injury-free, you can help keep everyone working at a high level and get home healthy.