Sailors need more sleep and shorter watches.
'Badge of honor'
Such were the findings of an independent, two-year study by the Rand Corp. titled "Sleep in the Military: Promoting Healthy Sleep Among U.S. Servicemembers." Completed in April, it is the first comprehensive review of sleep-related policies and realities throughout the Defense Department. The results are telling — "Sleep problems are prevalent, debilitating and persistent in servicemember populations."
Problems don't end when the deployment ends. One in five sailors who returned from deployment said sleep problems still interfere with work or daily tasks "somewhat to very much."
"We are actually causing injury, causing people to experience sleep disorders when we expose them to all these patterns," said Nita Shattuck, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who has studied the effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation for more than 13 years.
The Rand study also found that soldiers who averaged less than six hours of sleep while deployed were more than three times more likely to attempt suicide than those with more adequate sleep, and sleep problems can contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury.
Officials said the surface Navy could learn a lot from its aviation brethren. Rules that govern the sleep habits of pilots and air crews are far more rigid.
While no one plan can fit all situations, the Naval Postgraduate School recommends the 3/9 circadian watch bill become the norm whenever possible; this four-section rotation allows sailors to stand watch and sleep at the same times daily. Though it means more watch turnovers, the shorter watches (and better sleep) will sharpen individual focus and provide sailors stability and predictability.
Experts continue to gather evidence that circadian watchbills boost performance. An NPS study that concluded in June aboard the carrier Nimitz found reaction time Sailors' reaction time was 13 percent faster and errors were cut by one-third when they stood a 3/9 watch as compared to a five-and-dime, according to an NPS study on the carrier Nimitz that wrapped up in June.
Providing more time to sleep is only half the problem. Weary sailors often contend with noise and uncomfortable racks. Inconsistent sleep patterns exacerbate the problem. Other recommendations include:
- Better schedules. Schedule routine meetings and division quarters between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Extend meal times to accommodate watch turnovers. Ensure that sailors have the chance to sleep at the same time daily, following a 24-hour rhythm.
- Reduce noise. Arrange berthing by watch section to keep a lid on noise and nuisance during sleep times. Provide better mattresses and curtains that shut out light. Eliminate non-emergency 1MC announcements in off-duty berthing areas.
If you don't have enough people to man the four-section watch required for the 3/9, man a three-section — but ditch the five-and-dime, Shattuck said. A four-and-eight watch bill will bring more stability and better performance. If it does not provide a long enough period of adequate sleep, get a good nap. Don't ask the body to do something it is not designed to do, or there will be unavoidable consequences.
"I think changes are occurring, and that is very encouraging," Shattuck said. "The idea of having crew rest policies for surface ships is going to change the Navy in some fundamental ways. It is going to improve morale and performance."
'The hardest time'
This comes as no surprise to Cordle. The former commander of destroyer Oscar Austin and cruiser San Jacinto, defined a close call as 30 feet or 30 seconds from a collision or grounding, and said there were four times in his career he put himself in that situation.
"In three of them, I was tired," said Cordle, who now serves as technical director of AMSEC's Maintenance University.
"It was pretty clear that the watch team really didn't know where the ship was," he said. "Going through a very narrow transit at 2 o'clock in the morning, at about 15 to 20 knots, and there's other ships 2,000 yards behind you, that's a bad time to lose situational awareness."
"I got a pretty good butt chewing from the commodore after it, but the reality was I let myself get so tired that I lost situational awareness," Cordle recalled. "When the crew turned to me to make a decision, I wasn't prepared to make it. That really bugged me for the rest of my tour on Oscar Austin."
Cordle turned those lessons learned into a passionate pursuit for change. He dug into medical reviews, studied the body's circadian rhythm, and soon promoted three-on, nine-off watch bills built around four watch teams rotating through a 24-hour day.
"You can have the greatest warship in the world, but if the crew is fatigued and is not operating at peak performance, you are doing yourself no favors," he said.
"We only had three days liberty in Dubai that deployment. Everything else was at sea. It was absolutely brutal," he said. "I distinctly remember many, many days thinking, 'Do I want to eat or just go to sleep?' If you eat, you are going to wait in line. There was never a line at the chili bar, so I ate chili a lot just so I could go to sleep. I didn't eat chili again for 15 years after that deployment."
Despite its benefits, the circadian watch bill takes careful planning and preparation at every watch station, Foster said. Everyone must be certified to man a four-section watch. On Barry, there were "a small number" of jobs — crypto-technicians and electronic warfare folks — who could not participate because they lacked the numbers of qualified personnel.
If Foster has the opportunity to return to command, would he take the time to implement a circadian watch bill once more?
"Unequivocally, yes," he said.