When parachuting out of a plane into combat, there are two competing considerations at play. The soldier needs to reach the ground as quickly as possible (spending as little time in the air as an easy target for enemy fire as possible) without being injured on landing.
This first goal means that military parachutes do not provide the softest possible landings, and poor landing technique often leads to injuries. What happens when you add over 100lbs. of body armor, weaponry, ammunitions, communications equipment, and other combat gear to this equation?
A study carried out in January of 2010 at the University of Pittsburgh has demonstrated that the extra weight from combat equipment can alter soldiers’ landing mechanics and lead to increased incidence of musculoskeletal injury.
In this study, researchers compared the kinetics (the relationship between the motion of a body and the forces acting on it) of the landings of 70 active duty Air Assault soldiers with and without equipment. High-speed cameras and computer software were used to capture and analyze the soldiers’ landing biomechanics under the two conditions, and force plates were used to measure vertical ground reaction forces (force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it) of the landings.
Soldiers performed two-legged drop landings from a height of less than two ft. with body armor, helmet, and rifle, weighing a total of less than 40lbs. Real parachute landings are more similar to dropping from a height of ten feet without a chute, and real weight of combat gear exceeds 100lbs. Even though experimental forces were far less than those typically experienced by soldiers in training and combat, the additional weight was still observed to significantly alter soldiers’ landings.
It was determined that with the additional weight, soldiers experienced significantly greater maximum knee flexion, significantly greater maximum ground reaction forces, and greater time between initial ground contact and these peak values.
These changes in landing biomechanics and force of impact increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries in soldiers. Such injuries are a primary concern in the military. The Armed Forces Epidemiological Board reports that musculoskeletal injuries “impose a greater ongoing negative impact on the health and readiness of U.S. Armed forces than any other category of medical complaint during peacetime and combat.” According to records, 58% of hospitalization cases in 2005 in the Navy were due to musculoskeletal injuries. These types of injuries result in significant amounts of lost duty time and can often be long-lasting and difficult to make a full recovery from, so prevention is crucial.
While jumping into combat without equipment is obviously not an option, proper strengthening and conditioning of the lower extremities, incremental increases in the weight with which soldiers train, and emphasis on proper landing technique can help mitigate the increased risk of injury associated with the weight of combat gear.
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