Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne sleep ahead of a jump. (photo by Lt. Col. John Hall/U.S. Army).

The 18th Airborne Corps wants its soldiers to sleep. No, seriously. 

A memo shared with soldiers in the corps this past week and posted to social media issues a new sleep requirement for soldiers in the unit who are assigned to staff duty to get a minimum of four hours of sleep during their shift.

Soldiers on staff duty will be required to essentially stop, drop and count sheep. 

The memo also lays out ways for soldiers on staff duty to get the required rest without leaving the staff duty desk empty. Under the guidance, the staff duty noncommissioned officer will develop a rotation plan for soldiers to get the sleep. The staff duty officer can also fill in if needed for the schedule to work. 

The policy came from Maj. David Nixon, an officer with the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters at Fort Liberty. He brought the idea to Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the unit, who approved the idea. Nixon told Task & Purpose that Donahue asked field officers of the day to identify problems and come up with solutions for them; the sleep one was what Nixon put forward. 

Sleep in the military and the lack of it has been of serious concern for higher ups in government. The Government Accountability Office gave Congress a report on it in late March, outlining just how sleep deprived service members are, both in general and compared to the wider public. That in turn risks impacts on their abilities on duty. Additionally, the GAO said, it has led to dangerous accidents. 

“Lack of sleep among active duty service members has led to fatal accidents and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to ships, vehicles, and aircraft,” the GAO said last month. “Many service members reported slower reflexes and responses, lower cognitive function, and concerns about near-collisions or making a deadly mistake because of fatigue.”

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That is one major concern Nixon highlighted. He said there hasn’t been any specific incident or accident, but sleepiness is a pervasive issue across the military. Soldiers leaving a 24-hour staff duty shift are at risk of accidents when trying to get home. 

Nixon, who has previously written about the health risks of a lack of sleep and their impact on the Army, said that addressing this is “low hanging fruit.” He noted that the important of sleep is in the Army’s doctrine, with a whole chapter on it in the FM 7-22 field manual.

“There’s really no reason. It’s really an unwritten rule that you don’t sleep on staff duty. Some did, that was okay, some didn’t. They didn’t know if a leader would come in,” he said. “It’s kind of an empty space where there wasn’t direct guidance any other way.”

So far the new sleep orders are just for soldiers on staff duty. However, the memorandum notes that units should use it to “identify other areas where sleep should be leveraged to reduce the risk of accident or injury.” Nixon told Task & Purpose there is no planned benchmark or expansion, but he does see areas where this sleep requirement could be implemented. One suggestion that he pointed to is requiring sleep at the end of a training cycle, so troops trying to return to base are rested and can better avoid vehicle accidents. 

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