A new study conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research entitled, “Energy drink consumption and its association with sleep problems among US service members on a combat deployment,” has come to the startling conclusion that energy drinks may not be a healthy alternative to a good night’s sleep, and the mainstream media has chosen to act like that’s a surprise.
Research conducted as a part of the study found that nearly forty-five percent of deployed military personnel drink at least one energy drink per day, and nearly fourteen percent admitted to drinking three or more per day. The report went on to suggest that it’s possible that this level of energy drink consumption can have negative side effects on the health of American service members.
“These products generally are unregulated and can have negative side effects,” the report said. “Those who drank three or more drinks a day also were more likely to report sleep disruption related to stress and illness and were more likely to fall asleep during briefings or on guard duty.”
First and foremost, let’s agree that falling asleep on post is no laughing matter. It can compromise mission objectives and cost the lives of your brothers and sisters in arms, whether you’re on post in garrison or forward deployed. Threats against our service members are continuous, but uncommon in some places, making that twenty-four hour post sometimes particularly difficult to manage without a little assistance from coffee, energy drinks, or caffeinated novelties like gum. Many Marines I’ve served with even took up smoking or chewing primarily as a means to help them stay awake – sometimes out of concern over the enemy, and sometimes out of concern for roving first sergeants that appear out of the darkness like Batman during your eighteenth hour of barracks duty the day after Thanksgiving.
Smoking, like energy drinks, is bad for you – and just about every man and woman you run across in uniform is aware of that. The problem is, car bombs, IEDs, and 7.62 rounds are also pretty bad for you – and we need to survive those in order to be concerned about the damage that last Camel did to our lungs, or that Rip It did to our livers. CNN’s announcement today that the “Army’s new threat” is energy drinks is a clear misunderstanding of what our service members actually do while they’re at work.
Energy drinks played a big role in my time in the Marines – and continue to despite my keen awareness of how bad they are for me. The pins, screws, plates, and metal screens Navy surgeons used to piece my knees, ankle, and stomach together after seven years in Uncle Sam’s gun club are near constant reminders that my choices have consequences, and the vodka I mix my Sprite with likely isn’t going to prolong my life much either. The fact of the matter is, the sort of person that chooses to raise a hand, swear an oath, and charge headlong into whatever battle their country requires of them often do so with a keen awareness of the risks, and a conscious decision to value the objectives of the day over the possibility of losing all of their tomorrows.
The military lifestyle isn’t a healthy one. It’s ripe with potential injuries both physically and mentally, and each service member has to make hard choices about their own values and how they coincide with the ideals their country and their branch of service holds in high regard. In the grand scheme of things, few of the ways service members cope with sleepless nights, stressful days, losing friends or missing home are healthy. When you’re only concern is making it through the day (either physically or emotionally) – not many people will shy away from the bit of comfort a cold Rip It or a dry cigarette can provide.
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research came to no actual conclusions about the long-term effects of energy drinks despite continuing this study since 2010, but I won’t argue that there’s no way my daily Red Bull diet will ultimately lead to my undoing. If it does, I’ll likely die unable to bend my knees, sit up straight, see through my right eye or use the bathroom standing up – and I won’t be shaking my fist at Rip It’s pro-military marketing campaign. Spending tax dollars on such a study (that ultimately offered no new information on the subject) seems like a misappropriation of funds – after all, Monster Energy Drinks won’t kill twenty-one veterans today – but suicide will.
This study, as well as the coverage of it in major news outlets on Friday, paints a clear picture of the gap in understanding between America’s service members and the people allocating funds in an effort to help them. War is an ugly business. Devoting tax dollars to better understanding the drinks we use to make it through a post, instead of funding better equipment, psychological health workers, or a suicide hotline that won’t put you on hold is a blatant disregard for the real problems America’s service members and veterans face. It’s like asking for help with a broken leg and getting a lecture on your diet. Sure, I should eat better, but there are more pressing issues at hand.
I understand and appreciate that there are currently lots of incredible professionals working hard to address the real problems our service members face, and that funding doesn’t have to be an “either, or” proposition – but because there has yet to be any real progress on more important fronts like mental health, launching a new campaign intended to reduce the availability of creature comforts like energy drinks, or assigning each unit to yet another two-hour PowerPoint presentation about the adverse health effects of everything we do, is insulting at best.
So allow me to clear the air so the folks over at CNN and other media outlets can breathe a sigh of relief. We know the Rip Its we’re chugging are not good for us. Hell, that’s probably part of why we like them so much. Taking them away while we’re still standing twenty-four hour duties, on all night patrols, or just trying to unwind with a few friends won’t improve our standard of living, even if it extends it, and the more you emphasize such a non-issue, the more we, the people of the United States, focus on it instead of the things that really matter.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army