Recently, the U.S. Air Force dedicated itself to providing better care for its most elite operatives. It turned to the collegiate sports medicine model for the answer.
If college athletic trainers need a signal that their approach is effective and respected, they can consider looking at the United States Air Force. When participants in its Special Warfare Training Program were breaking down physically and mentally from the incredible demands placed on them, the Air Force decided to pursue a new model of care patterned after collegiate sports medicine programs.
According to an article in The Air Force Times, the new model is being used at the Air Force’s Joint Base in San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, where top airmen go through a training program called the Special Warfare Preparatory Course. According to a memo quoted in the article, those in charge of the course became concerned that many who served as Special Warfare airmen ended up “physically, mentally and psychologically broken due to their combat experience and service commitment.”
Maj. Sam Schindler, Director of Operations of the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, said a decade as a Special Warfare operative leaves many troops’ bodies “held together with duct tape and bailing wire.” Often, these service members leave with multiple areas injured or painful backs, knees, ankles, and shoulders.
In an attempt to better prepare and care for these troops, the Air Force built a new Special Warfare Training Wing in October. At the center of the new care program is an athletic training facility, which is staffed by three former college athletic trainers.
“We’re trying to model it off of a college sports medicine model, where we have athletic trainers on site, and we have other providers who are able to come by as needed—and they come by rather routinely,” said Laura Mertz, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, who serves as one of the athletic trainers on staff.
The athletic training room is stocked with state-of-the-art equipment and modalities, including an anti-gravity treadmill equipped with cameras that evaluate how an injured airman is moving. This allows them to keep exercising while injured, a change the new care model has allowed for.
“A lot of times in the military the thinking is, you’re either healthy and training, or you’re hurt and not training,” Mertz said. “We’re trying to help them understand that it’s not black and white. There is that area where you can still be participating in some things while you’re still receiving care.”
In addition to rehabbing injuries, the Air Force’s athletic trainers are taking a high-tech approach to preventing problems from happening. Shortly after airmen arrive for training, they undergo an assessment developed by the Dynamic Athletic Research Institute, called a DARI test. The test scans the troop’s body as they perform 19 different movements, including squats, lunges, and jumps, recording which muscles are used. Athletic trainers are then able to correct inefficient movement patterns before they lead to injuries.
Biometric feedback is also a large part of the new program. Airmen test their urine every morning to evaluate hydration and then take a 4-minute echocardiogram. Further, they train wearing a Zephyr monitor that records 40 different pieces of information while they work out. And they take regular wellness surveys that assess how they’re feeling psychologically.
By analyzing all of this data, athletic trainers are able to keep tabs on the airmen’s physical and emotional states and intervene if necessary. For example, troops whose biometrics reveal that they are in “fight or flight” mode may spend time in a sensory deprivation float tank—or utilize another recovery tool—to bring their nervous systems back into balance.
With the new sports medicine model, the Air Force is hoping to ensure that its most elite airmen do not see their careers cut short by injury. If the program works, it may be implemented in other areas of the Air Force, as well.
“We’re trying to bring in as much technology as we can, and as many experts as we can, to get the best that we can out of the airmen coming to us,” said Maj. Schindler.
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