A set of human performance tools under development by the Army likely prevented a disease outbreak predeployment for one battalion and possibly saved the life of a soldier who was having suicidal thoughts, according to the unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Rowe.
The MASTR-E, or Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness, program is the Army’s attempt to better track and manage soldier performance within units.
Rowe, whose soldiers have been using MASTR-E over the past year, spoke with Army Times at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting Oct. 11.
Rowe leads 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. Rowe’s troops first received the MASTR-E devices in August 2020. The kit includes an Oura Ring to monitor sleep, a RediBand to monitor recovery and a Polar Grit X smartwatch to monitor exertion.
Any devices that provide the same sensors could be used, said George Matook, spokesman for MASTR-E with the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command.
Not long after the soldiers started using the devices — about a month before deployment — the data showed some elevated heart rate numbers for a couple of troops, Rowe said.
Those numbers prompted commanders to have the soldiers report to medical, where they learned they had the beginnings of a Streptococcal infection. The deployment could have been negatively impacted had that infection spread throughout the unit.
Later, while completing a final, two-week field training event before deploying to Afghanistan, the commander himself got some human performance news. Rowe was told by Joseph Patterson, the soldier performance strategist for CCDC, that his sleep deprivations levels were so high that “you were basically drunk” while on the latter stages of the field training.
Hearing that helped Rowe take notice of his sleep patterns, he said. And he adjusted.
Even simple actions — like avoiding food right before sleeping — helped him feel more rested and refreshed when he needed it most.
Down the road, while in Afghanistan, a soldier’s sleep was consistently interrupted, Rowe said. Unit leaders checked in with the soldier, who later said on a mental health evaluation that they weren’t doing well.
The soldier was flown back to Kuwait for further evaluations, where the soldier explained that they’d been having suicidal thoughts. The soldier got help at home, Rowe said.
Good sleep, healthy minds and disease-tracking are byproducts of what the program is designed for — better overall health. Patterson said the data gathered is “scooped up” by tablet computers and other devices when in formation, but the subjective questionnaires are for the soldiers to fill out daily.
Commanders then get a disaggregated set of data — no names, just numbers — for the unit’s readiness.
The end goal is for commanders to be able to glimpse at the dashboard and see if a certain unit might be more “ready” than another for a crucial task, Matook said. Then leaders can intervene to improve sleep, recovery, nutrition, hydration and other areas.
Using the equipment is easy, Rowe said, especially for soldiers familiar with smart devices. But the hurdle is getting soldiers remain consistent, as it’s an optional program.
Six hundred soldiers volunteered to use the devices a year ago. About 100 are consistent users, plugging in their data and answering questions on a regular basis, Rowe said.
Those who opted into the program are seeing gains in their performance, and Rowe has noticed better decision-making, especially in stressful situations.
As soldiers rotate, new replacements will be offered the devices and tracking technology. Rowe hopes more will participate in future iterations. He envisions a time when commanders can evaluate specific position placements, such as who will serve as a squad automatic weapon gunner, by using data from the program.
Rowe’s battalion came home from Afghanistan in early September, and its members were recently extended on the MASTR-E program for another year. He’ll likely have a lot more data to work with in the future.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.