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Study evaluates soldier load weights

by Mike Hoffman on August 16, 2012

The Pentagon has launched a new study to figure out how much soldiers and Marines should carry, and the tradeoff between the gear they carry versus speed and mobility.

Officials awarded a grant through the Navy Health Research Center to a Massachusetts research professor to determine the consequences of load and armor on a combat soldier’s ability to perceive and respond to threats.

Although a soldier’s weight carrying capacity has been studied before, Richard E.A. van Emmerik, with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said he hopes to break new ground.

Instead of studying the impact of load on a soldier’s gait and lower body, “we will for the first time look at how the upper body, trunk and head coordinate in a soldier who is burdened by a heavy load, which is a fundamentally different and a more complex situation,” van Emmerik said in a statement.

The Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group teamed up with Johns Hopkins University in 2009 to conduct a soldier load assessment in Afghanistan to find out what would happen when you shaved 20 pounds off of the typical soldier load that averaged more than 100 pounds.

A battalion’s worth of soldiers were equipped with lightweight armor plate carriers, packs, boots and other equipment to assess how lighter loads increase soldier mobility and effectiveness in combat. The effort led to the Army selecting and fielding a new plate-carrier as an alternative to the bulky, heavy-weight Improved Outer Tactical Vest.

Van Emmerik is a professor of kinesiology where he studies human movement. The $975,000 study, which will take 2 1/2 years, is called “Effects of Armor and Load on Action-Perception Coupling.”

“Gait is just the beginning. We’ll introduce a visual search task and track the coordination of upper body, postural control and visual acuity,” he said. “No study has yet added all these, plus other factors, together in a realistic way to look at how load affects the soldier’s ability to perceive threats, his or her operational effectiveness and survivability in combat.”

Researchers already know a great deal about load and locomotion, stamina, oxygen use, energy use and so on, Van Emmerik said. His study will expand to look at whether load affects reaction time, visual attention to critical details and the ability to discriminate friend or foe, he said.

The plan calls for van Emmerik and his team to recruit trained infantrymen to be study subjects. They’ll be tested with no load as well as with loads ranging from 70 to 120 lbs.

The initial goals of the study are to gain insight into the relations that allow soldiers to survive in realistic situations and to develop a means of comparing the consequences of different load configurations on soldier survivability.

What’s learned from the study will also apply to firefighters, rescue workers and others who have to sacrifice perception and mobility in order to gear-up against threats.

–Bryant Jordan

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