A soldier provides security in Afghanistan. A survey asks soldiers what makes them feel secure behind the wire and other quality-of-life issues. (Capt. John Landry/Army)
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What’s worth more to a soldier at a remote base: A hot shower or a hot meal? Clean clothes or weightlifting equipment? Air conditioning or email access?
All of these choices help soldiers assess their quality of life — something Army researchers want to distill into a measurable variable so they can maintain it for those in far-off locations, much like they’d maintain the fuel or water supply.
In August, more than 1,200 soldiers who’ve served on small bases — 1,000 people or less — will answer the latest round of questions designed to discover that data point. Their input will help create early building blocks for researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Consumer Research Team.
“You’re the first group of guys to be giving us feedback on this, and what you say really is going to influence decision-makers,” Justine Federici, a research psychologist with the CRT, said in a June 3 interview. “How they prioritize, different technologies, research dollars — that input is telling us what’s most important to the individual soldier.”
Metrics for happiness
All soldiers in remote locations want hot showers and clean laundry — the survey is designed to pick apart these requests and allow leaders to better allocate resources to keep troops happy.
For example, soldiers rate feeling secure at or near the top of their quality-of-life scale. Measuring such a feeling isn’t easy.
“It’s a very tricky thing to look at,” Federici said. “In interviews, they talk about how war is never safe, but they also talk abut the sense of security inside the wire: They talked about the ... sense of security in order to be able to sleep at night. What actually drives that feeling? Is it knowing that someone else is on guard duty? Is it how remote I am, how close I am to the next base or close-air support? Is it having bunkers that I can go to? We kicked around a bunch of different ideas. We want to do more thinking about it.”
Even what appear to be simple choices can have complications: Soldiers may say they like a long shower after returning to base, for example, but what if they can’t clean their clothes?
“It’s actually less water to wash the clothing than to take the shower,” Federici said, “so maybe they’d rather be able to put on a fresh uniform and just sort of take an improvised shower.”
Reallocating water use is one of many ways the quality-of-life metric could improve soldiers’ lives, if even slightly. Another example: Researchers have determined that dropping shower times from 10 to eight minutes saves significant resources but doesn’t make soldiers feel like they’re being cheated out of keeping clean.
Some findings could result in simple tweaks to the supply chain: Naturally, soldiers preferred Unitized Group Ration-A hot meals to Meals, Ready-to-Eat, but there’s a limit.
“One soldier got the Thanksgiving one over and over again,” Federici said. “You might take an MRE, at some point. You might just want some M&Ms.”
Researchers said they don’t expect their survey to have much use beyond 2,000-person installations, saying the infrastructure at such places would include many more quality-of-life data points — transportation, postal service, and so on.
The August survey will go to soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Stewart, Georgia; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
Once researchers believe their surveys can be turned into useful metrics, the measurements get looped into the Technology-enabled Capability Demonstration for Sustainability/Logistics-Basing team, or TeCD 4A, which works to cut fuel and water use and reduce waste at expeditionary camps.
At that point, leader buy-in becomes critical: Data showing a downturn in quality of life still would need to be acted upon by Army planners for it to carry the same weight as stats on fuel or water use.
So far, Federici said, that hasn’t been a problem.
“I’ve found the response has been very positive about the work,” she said. “Senior leaders, I think that they recognize that quality of life is very important. I don’t think it will be a challenge.”