Human Weapon System Maintenance and Optimization

  • Published
  • By Col. Jeffery Alder
  • 22nd Medical Group
In World War II, it took hundreds of bombers to drop thousands of bombs to destroy a single target. Today, an F-22 Raptor flown by a single pilot can drop 16 bombs and destroy 16 different targets in a one sortie.

Just as the U.S. Air Force has redefined the meaning of "mass" in warfare, the importance of a single Airman has changed as well. We cannot afford to lose Airmen nor have Airmen perform at degraded levels, no matter the Air Force specialty code or pay grade, without negative mission impact. The contribution of each Airman is simply too great. I believe it's our duty to optimize the performance of our Airman through fitness and wellness, just as we maintain and enhance our other weapon systems.

All Airmen know that we should exercise, eat right and get enough sleep. But is this just generally good guidance for our own good, or is it a military duty that impacts military operations?

I'll share with you simple encounters with three great Americans that influenced my beliefs regarding fitness, wellness and human performance in the service of our country.

First, there was Lt. Gen. Mike Short, the Airman in charge of the air war over Serbia during Operation Allied Force in 1999. Even in the most demanding periods of the war when sleep was a luxury, General Short's battle rhythm included a daily 30 minute run. He later explained that his best operational decisions were made during these runs, when he could quiet his thoughts and focus clearly on the problem at hand. In hindsight, many exhausted Airmen would have been well served to have followed his example.

My second encounter was with the commander of the forward surgical team at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, during Operation Anaconda in 2002. After 72 hours filled with intense periods of trauma surgery to save wounded coalition warriors, there was a tactical pause - no indication of more inbound casualties. The commander quickly changed into shorts and led his joint team of medical Soldiers and Airmen on a physical training session down a somewhat secured road. When I lightly commented that he must really like to run, he replied, without humor, that their commitment to physical training kept his team mentally and physically sharp and ready to save the lives of others.

The third encounter was with Army Gen. George W. Casey, then commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq, in Baghdad. In his mission brief to new staff officers, he spoke of the long hours and stress ahead. He made clear his expectation that we all exercise regularly in order to keep pace in the "long war." He also encouraged his personal habit of reading each night, if only for a few minutes before a few hours sleep. His purpose was to mentally slow it down and think of something of his choosing for his own benefit. It wasn't hard to observe who had listened and who didn't at the end of their long tour.

These encounters made me realize that fitness and wellness are more than good advice - it is our duty so we enhance our performance in the service to our nation. These great Americans, amidst the competing demands of war, took the time needed to exercise, quiet their minds, and recharge their batteries. Their purpose was not to pass a fitness test, use their deployment to get in shape, or cram for a professional military education exam. For these three professional Airmen and Soldier, it was just another day in the life-long maintenance of the human weapon system.