The U.S. Army Hopes the Apple Watch Can Help Improve the Performance of Special Forces Soldiers

U.S. Special Forces Credit: BOATFOTO / Shutterstock
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There’s no doubt that the Apple Watch is a great tool for monitoring the health and fitness of everyday users, and we’ve heard many stories of how it’s generally making people’s lives better and healthier and even saving some outright by alerting them to potentially deadly medical conditions.

Now it looks like the U.S. Department of Defense agrees, with a new health study that will use Apple’s wearable device to help monitor the physical and psychological health and improve the performance of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) soldiers.

First reported by MyHealthyApple, the clinical study is being done in collaboration with the University of Southern California (USC), and will continuously monitor the mental and physical status of Special Ops team members, with details reported back to the researchers via a special confidential and secure mobile application.

Specifically, USC and DoD researchers are trying to determine whether the Apple Watch can be used to reduce overall “warfighter degradation,” ideally by predicting it based on a soldier’s daily behaviour.

In this case, the Apple Watch wouldn’t be used in the actual operational field — at least not yet; the study is intended to address the physical and mental strain that Special Ops soldiers experience after returning from deployment, or even during training prior to deployment.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) warfighters experience tremendous physical and mental strain and degradation after returning from deployment and during training prior to deployment.

Leslie Saxon, University of Southern California

Researchers are hopeful that the data collected from the Apple Watch and accompanying app could be used to determine when soldiers are at risk of “red-line” events —things like alcohol abuse, suicide, and divorce that are often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but can also be triggered by forms of degradation that are less readily apparent.

Although the U.S. military has tried to address this problem in the past, the Apple Watch has opened the door to a whole new set of possibilities, thanks to its ability to be readily worn by SOF soldiers even when off-duty or on leave.

For example, the study notes that the military previously attempted a program known as a Comprehensive Operator Readiness Assessment (cORA) for the 3rd SFG(A) Green Beret warfighters at Fort Bragg, but this was limited to a one-day assessment that required in-person attendance, making it very difficult to scale upwards to hundreds of soldiers, and of course only providing a limited one-day snapshot of the participant’s mental and physical status.

However, USC researchers are taking the same principles behind the cORA program as the basis for a new “Digital cORA” that will scale it up by allowing all of the same types of assessments to be conducted remotely on a continuous and comprehensive basis via the Apple Watch and an accompanying mobile app.

For example, the Apple Watch will be used to continuously monitor physiological indicators such as heart rate, activity, and sleep cycles over a six-month period while the accompanying app will require participants to perform activities measuring things like spatial memory and working memory along with a number of other psychological and lifestyle factors.

In addition, the app is intended to go beyond monitoring to also deliver helpful features such as nutritional advice and meditation and mindfulness activities that are specifically designed to “support warfighters, mitigate degradation, and optimize performance.”

To this end, the study is recruiting 250 Green Berets from the 3rd Special Forces Group (SFG(A)) in Fort Bragg along with 250 Marines from the 1st Recon Battalion at Camp Pendleton. The Green Beret warfighters will be enrolled within three months of returning from deployment — a time period known as the “Red Cycle” — while the recon Marines will be enrolled up to six months prior to deployment, while undergoing combat training.

Ultimately, researchers hope that the Digital cORA program can reduce or even eliminate the kind of “red-line” behavioural events that occur as a result of “warfighter degradation,” to provide elite Special Operations Forces soldiers, who are often required to engage in extremely demanding and difficult missions, with a more balanced lifestyle.

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