We may think of sleep and its accessories as a luxury, but it’s basically the opposite — an essential body function whose absence leads to many complications with performance and cognition. No one knows that better than the soldiers of Fort Wainwright, an Army base in central Alaska.
Its extreme northern location means each day anywhere from three to 22 hours of sunlight depending on the time of year. Right now, in early spring, they are already at 16-hour days. This irregularity means sleeping well, and consistently, is a huge challenge. So soldiers here go out of their way to make it happen, with “happy lamps” in the winter, blackout curtains in their bedrooms and yes, even sleep masks.
“All our senior leaders are embracing the need for sleep,” Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hough, an infantry battalion commander at Fort Wainwright, told The Huffington Post. “We’ve all experienced the detrimental culture in which sleep deprivation was worn as a badge of honor, and we know there’s only so hard we can push people before they start to make mistakes.”
Hough is an active proponent of the Performance Triad, the Army’s campaign to improve wellness and performance within its ranks by focusing on soldiers’ fitness, nutrition, and sleep.But Hough has had to tailor the Triad’s message to account for the battalion’s singular environment.
His soldiers observe a strict bedtime, between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., including during the summer. Evening hours are not just device-proofed, but also daylight-proofed (with the aforementioned masks and curtains), since darkness is essential to restorative sleep.
And in the winter, said Hough, Fort Wainwright’s leaders are “highly cognizant of the potential for seasonal depression.” So they organize extra social events and tell soldiers to get outside, as is customary in Alaska.
“Alaskans say that it’s never too cold to be outside,” he said. “Their culture really embraces their environment — so in winter, we try to get into hockey and skiing, and when it warms up, we celebrate things like the spring thaw.”
Regardless of the season, these soldiers do their rigorous physical training at 6:30 every morning to institute some regularity in their schedule.
Hough served in Iraq and Afghanistan starting in 2003, where he learned about sleep deprivation firsthand. He says this experience, common to many of today’s army leaders, convinced him of the importance of sleep. “There’s really not much resistance to the Performance Triad around here,” he said. “My generation experienced the ‘badge of honor’ culture around sleep deprivation the most. We don’t want to inflict that on our soldiers.”
Residents of Alaska have more sleep problems than most other Americans because of the state’s irregular daylight exposure, according to Heidi Knode of the Alaska Sleep Clinic.This is because sunlight is key to regulating circadian rhythms, the body’s 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.
Hough works to give his troops a sense of agency over their bodies within a domineering environment. “When we use blackout shades, have regular schedules, get exercise every day, and eat well, then we get to sleep the way we want, not how the climate dictates,” he said.