Keeping SOF Healthy and Ahead of the Competition

By Vice Adm. Tim Szymanski, Deputy Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command

From Armor & Mobility, May 2021

In 2021, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is postured to meet the challenges of our nation’s adversaries and competitors. In an era of strategic competition, we creatively and effectively adapt to maintain the pressure on violent extremist organizations, while also operating in the competition space with our near-peer state actors. Five overarching priorities continue to guide our efforts: competing and winning for the nation, preserving and growing readiness, innovating for future threats, advancing partnerships, and strengthening our force and families.

When we talk about competing and winning for the nation, we’re talking about protecting America’s interests abroad and confronting challenges ahead. USSOCOM is a critical component of the joint force; our forces bring unique capabilities to the fight. We will continue to play an active role defending our shores, which is why we need to preserve and grow readiness, our second priority. Special Operations Forces (SOF) cannot be manufactured overnight. Having the right people with the right skills, training, and expertise helps us maximize our competitive edge. Maintaining that edge requires continuous innovation. The hyper-enabled operator effort is a good example of our third priority to innovate for future threats.

Partnering with the Department of Defense, civilian research, industry, and academic institutions is essential to staying ahead of our competition. USSOCOM seeks participation and feedback from all of these institutions and other organizations. We progress further and faster when we work with a diverse set of partners. But we’re not only focused on research and development partners at home, we are also dedicated to strengthening our alliances and partnerships abroad.

Today’s threats are transregional in nature, so the importance of our international relationships is clear. When USSOCOM enhances its partnerships with allied SOF through collaboration and integration the security of both nations increases. At the heart of all five of our priorities are our operators and their families. We are committed to optimizing and sustaining SOF mission readiness, career longevity, and quality of life after service. Our warfighters and families are indeed our most important resource.

This brings me to a deeply personal focus area of mine and a priority focus area for USSOCOM, and that is brain health. We want to keep our SOF healthy, extend their careers, and help them achieve a high quality of life after service. To achieve this goal, we have historically focused on operator performance and resiliency through a physical, spiritual, psychological, social and family lens. In 2019, we published our Comprehensive Strategy for SOF Warfighter Brain Health, adding the cognitive domain as the fifth pillar of operator resiliency. Our strategy implements a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to brain health through our command surgeon, Preservation of the Force and Family office, Warrior Care Program-Care Coalition, and Science & Technology directorate. Our teams of brain health experts and caring leaders are driven to not only optimize the lethality and cognitive abilities of our operators but also improve their welfare and dignity beyond their military service. USSOCOM and its service components have made tremendous progress on a number of fronts in brain health, but we have a long road ahead to clear, pave, and travel.

As the science of brain health has rapidly evolved over the last decade, so too has USSOCOM’s ability to understand and sharpen the cognitive ability of our SOF. The first step is collecting the data to identify symptoms, assess the results, and provide easy access to care in order to quickly address any concerns. Years ago, SOF did not collect this data. Today, every operator in SOF goes through a baseline assessment, which is crucial to identifying variations in cognitive performance over time. Over the course of a career, SOF personnel may develop and exhibit several symptoms related to brain health. USSOCOM is committed to monitoring exposures that could create these adverse health effects, in addition to advancing science and technology to assist in these undertakings and protecting our personnel to the extent possible.

A primary concern for USSOCOM is to better understand the effects of repetitive low-level blast exposure over the lifetime of a warfighter’s career. Low-level blast exposures are those that do not necessarily cause concussions. These seemingly small events are common in SOF, most happening during training, not in combat, like when a service member experiences the back blast of a shoulder-fired weapon. This is similar to studies that show that more head trauma happens in football practice than the actual game. SOF stakeholders down to the unit level are playing critical roles in helping us better understand this concern. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force service components have worked with academic institutions on several USSOCOM-funded studies that use special neuroimaging techniques and other measures to determine the effects of repetitive low-level blast exposure. For example, U.S. Army Special Operations Command is working with an academic research institution in North Carolina that is not only looking at blast exposure effects but also the long-term health of warfighters in areas such as vision, behavioral health, and musculoskeletal injury.

As we move forward, we are implementing other assessment tools across the force to better understand each service member’s concussion and blast exposure history as well as symptoms that could be related to brain health. This will help us improve screening for potential and actual traumatic brain injuries, exposures to adverse environmental factors, post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, headache, sleep apnea, or other medical conditions.

At the tactical edge and at home, USSOCOM partners, innovates, researches, and trains to keep our operators lethal, healthy, and cognitively sharp. I hope you enjoy the articles from our acquisition, technology, and logistics professionals that will describe some of the many exciting technology opportunities and partnerships occurring worldwide – technologies that will help keep our SOF ahead of the competition for years to come.