The Army is fundamentally a people-focused organization that engages in Soldier-centric combat. Indeed, Army senior leaders describe people as the Army’s “greatest strength and most important weapon system." Critical to this weapon system is the health and performance of the brain. In particular, the brains of US Army Warfighters. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once remarked, “the most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.”
The Army devotes resources to identifying the best ways to protect those six inches through research on brain health and Soldier performance. While research conducted outside of the military is relevant, often the research questions that need to be addressed are specific to the military context and need a team of specialists who understand the military. Those working as military research psychologists advance knowledge and develop technology to protect the brain and behavioral health of Soldiers, and to enhance Soldier neurocognitive performance. In this article, “military research psychology” is used broadly to describe work by psychologists, neuroscientists, and other brain health scientists.
The topics they address are wide ranging and include how fatigue, nutrition, and environmental variables such as temperature and altitude affect Soldier performance on a variety of operationally relevant tasks. Army research psychologists also study how battlefield events can affect brain health. For example, Army research psychologists are delivering a decision aid that informs when an explosive blast event is strong enough to degrade Soldier cognitive performance. Such research has influenced training guidance and the content of Army Field Manuals. Indeed, the Army recently updated its guidelines for Soldier sleep in FM 7-22 incorporating research results from Army research psychologists.
Army research psychologists have also informed Army policy. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, uniformed Army research psychologists routinely deployed to assess the mental health of US service members in combat as part of Mental Health Advisory Teams. MHAT findings were briefed at senior levels of the service and played a key role in influencing Army behavioral health policy and staffing. Work by military research psychologists has also influenced training and education content delivered as part of the Performance Triad and Army resilience program.
Military psychology research by Army scientists has also resulted in useful tools for Soldiers. Some examples include an improved field test to assess eye injury from directed energy, caffeine gum, and mobile application tools to optimize sleep planning. Importantly, Army scientists have been addressing the serious threat of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Research done by Army scientists, in combination with work by partners in industry, academia, and Army acquisitions, contributed to the development a blood test for TBI. The use of this test in a handheld device was approved by the FDA this year. Further, preclinical research done by Army scientists is informing an Army acquisition program working to deliver an FDA licensed drug for TBI.
The Army teams devoted to using science to promote the brain health and performance of Soldiers consist of uniformed, civilian, and contractor personnel. Unique among this workforce is a small group (about 25-30 in any given year) of Army officers with the military occupational specialty of Research Psychologist (71F). These officers are trained as Soldiers, but also have doctorates in research psychology. This background provides the Army with personnel who have both the Soldier skills and the scientific knowledge to perform Army research in deployed settings. Moreover, 71F officers provide direct and organizational leadership for many of the Army’s military psychology research efforts. Their dual perspective ensures the Army will have high quality scientific solutions that remain focused on the Soldier and the needs of the Army.
Military research psychology will remain relevant into the future. In his foundational writing on military strategy, On War, Carl von Clausewitz presented a theory of war dominated by the human element. In his view, human nature, decisions, and fallibilities underpin the course of armed conflict. Nearly two centuries later, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster made the same argument, describing war as a fundamentally “human endeavor” and a “contest of wills.” In his view, the idea that technology will obviate the human element is a myth. Nevertheless, the specific threats to Soldiers brain health and performance depend on the operational context, which changes over time. Thus, military psychology research must continually advance to ensure Soldiers benefit from the latest developments in brain health, cognitive performance, and neuro-protection. Military psychology research is not simply dedicated to finding knowledge, but is dedicated to finding solutions.
Capt. Jeffrey Osgood, Ph.D., is the associate director of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research's Military Psychology Branch of the Center for Military Psychology and Neuroscience