Tampa Bay is hosting the Special Operation Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) this week and the floor of the marketplace is an impressive place to see. Some of the best manufacturers of weapons and equipment are there with their latest wares and it is a maze of cool gear for the cool guys and a ton of other must-have items.  Walking around the market place I was searching for a pitchman that looked like Ivan Drago.

In an interview with Defense News, Ben Chitty, Senior Project Manager for Biomedical, Human Performance and Canine Portfolios in the Science and Technology office at USSOCOM said that the command is looking for ways to increase Special Operations troops performance with diet, nutritional supplements and even performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

“If there are … different ways of training, different ways of acquiring performance that are non-material, that’s preferred but in a lot of cases we’ve exhausted those areas,” said Chitty.

SOCOM is looking for ways to enhance performance for troops who’ll be operating in extremes. Those at high altitude or under the water for extended periods of time with no food.

It is a very understandable approach, who wouldn’t want SOF troops that can run faster, and longer distances, carry heavier loads on their backs and perform at peak performance at all times? However, it opens a kind of Pandora’s box. When the command is talking about having nutritionists and athletic trainers on hand akin to what the NFL that is great. But what SOCOM needs to remember is the problems the NFL had/has with performance enhancing drugs.

While those will boost the performance of an athlete/operator today, we’ve seen what the effects are long-term on NFL players. And then, where does it stop?

Chitty’s comments about pushing operators thru pain tolerance, injury recovery and peak performance are fine but there is a fine line that will invariably be crossed. “For performance enhancing drugs, we’ll have to look at the makeup and safety in consultation with our surgeon and the medical folks before making any decisions on it,” he said.

“If there are things in the nutraceutical realm that are available, those are good in the sense that its not a new drug that’s being developed. If the best thing for our folks is a pharmaceutical then we’re interested in understanding what’s the space that industry and academia can provide for us.”

For those who don’t recall, Ivan Drago was the Russian (then Soviet), boxer who took on Rocky Balboa in “Rocky IV”. Filmed at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, it pitted the American underdog Rocky Balboa against a bio-mechanically engineered boxer, one scary looking Ivan Drago.

The temptation is always there and no one is faulting Chitty for trying to do the best for the SOF operators. That’s his job and he’s doing it to the best of his abilities and to the limits of what his office can do. Training at a peak performance thru diet and supplements is fine. But one must hope that they leave the performance enhancing drugs alone.

Our SOF operators already face a tough road, with a tough OpTempo, and a physically challenging job. It takes its toll on their bodies, that many don’t see tomorrow, but years down the line long after their careers are over. Don’t compound it with the long-term effects of using performance enhancing drugs.

There will be the inevitable reaction of some operators…and candidates once this practice becomes the norm. If a little works, then a lot would work more…right? Don’t say it can’t happen because it does, all the time in the NFL. I’ve stood in NFL locker rooms and interviewed players. Are all of them “natural athletes” that have built their bodies that hard work, nutrition with a strict diet and approved supplements? I don’t think anyone believes that.

Then the eventual trickle-down effect will be felt in the Selection and Qualification courses. If a marginal candidate feels that he can’t meet the physical standards, then it won’t be long at all for some to justify using PEDs in order to make the cut.

We tell the candidates right here prior to attending Selection, don’t bring any supplements that aren’t approved by the training staff. The training cadre shouldn’t have to test candidates for PEDs before, during or after the courses begin.

There is no way to gauge what the long-term effects of taking certain PEDs will be to SOF operators down the road. We owe them enough already without having to put another undue strain on them later in life.

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Develop better and more effective training methods. Most definitely hire dieticians and nutritional experts to improve the operators’ peak function…naturally. But let’s leave the PEDs alone.

For the young troops gearing up for the Selection courses…don’t get tempted by looking for the easy way to get prepared. Like many things, the devil is in the details. And the price is too high.

Photo courtesy DOD