Pentagon needs to wake up on troops’ lack of sleep, watchdog says

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Even with a full arsenal of energy drinks and coffee rations, the U.S. military is still losing the war against sleepiness.

Despite promises from military leaders to address a lack of sleep among service members, most troops still fail to get enough rest each night to fully function at their posts, researchers warned in a report released this week.

“Fatigue and sleep deprivation among active-duty service members continues to be more the rule than the exception,” investigators from the Government Accountability Office wrote in findings released to Congress on March 26. “Impairment from fatigue can be equivalent to the effects of alcohol intoxication and increases the risk of collisions and mishaps.”

Past studies by Defense Department officials have shown that active-duty personnel are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to sleep less than seven hours per night, leading to increased risk of accident and error in daily tasks.

The new study — mandated by lawmakers in response to concerns from those past findings — said little progress has been made on the problem in recent years, even as military officials have promised that the issue is being taken seriously.

As part of a survey of military officers conducted by GAO, researchers found that more than one in four respondents slept for six hours or less per night, and half of all respondents rated the quality of their sleep as poor or extremely poor.

Problems included long hours spent at work, deployments interrupting sleep patterns, and medical issues from their military service that affect troops’ ability to rest.

“DOD and the services have taken steps to address fatigue, such as conducting research and implementing strategies to limit sleep deprivation,” researchers wrote.

“However, we found challenges with DOD’s approach to overseeing and leading the department’s fatigue related efforts, fragmented fatigue-related research efforts, and information sharing across the department.”

The GAO report found promise in some individual military services’ projects and guidelines designed to help troops get more rest, but noted that those separate efforts are not being analyzed or shared among the other armed forces, leading to incomplete results.

In 2021, Defense Department researchers outlined several recommendations to tackle the issue, including adopting new duty schedules to ensure eight hours of sleep, providing resources to troops who want to cut back on caffeine use, and establishing training in “sleep leadership” to emphasize the importance of the topic to commanders.

However, “DOD officials told us they do not have plans to implement and monitor the recommendations from that study, and officials were not able to provide an updated status on each of the recommendations,” the GAO researchers wrote.

The watchdog recommended moving ahead with those overdue changes, and assigning leaders within the services and Pentagon to spearhead the efforts. GAO leaders said that defense officials generally agreed with the ideas but did not provide any timeline for when or if changes will be made.

The full report is available at the GAO website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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