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FORT BENNING, Ga. – It's 0-dark-30 on Sand Hill, an appropriately named training ground where granules get into the socks of visitors and no-nonsense officers get into the faces of soldiers laboring through the last of their pre-dawn push-ups.
Members of the U.S. Army's 192nd Infantry Brigade are up and running before sunrise, one of their rites of passage during the metamorphosis from civilian to soldier. Their pre-breakfast activities consist of calisthenics – everything from pull-ups to sit-ups – and a muscle-searing exercise in which two-man teams work to flip large truck tires, end over end, from one corner of the training field to the other.
A few yards away, Michael Methvin, a student in Auburn University's post-certification graduate athletic training program, scans the group for signs of something other than physical exertion. He's looking for a limp that might allow him to detect a soldier's ankle sprain, a wince that could betray a pulled muscle or stress fracture. His eyes are wide open for these and other tell-tale clues despite the fact that he's been up since 2:30 a.m.
"I feel accomplished because I'm getting up earlier than the soldiers do," said Methvin, one of 10 Auburn students who diagnose, treat and prevent injuries as part of the Warrior Athletic Training Program, a partnership between the College of Education's Department of Kinesiology and the 192nd.
Over the course of a year, Auburn's graduate athletic trainers will help care for an estimated 14,000 soldiers who cycle through Fort Benning for nine weeks of basic combat training or 14 weeks of infantry training. While the injuries will be similar to those experienced by athletes, the work environment is far different than those encountered in a football stadium or gymnasium.
"I've worked with college and high school athletes," said graduate student Lexi Douglas. "Not to diminish them in any way, but you get them [healthy] to play a game. You get these guys ready to go fight a war. That has hit home for me. It's humbling in a way."
Many of the troops they treat will eventually land in the hot zones of Afghanistan. Their early mornings on Sand Hill harden their bodies and galvanize their resolve, but even the hardiest former athlete can have his training derailed by an awkward landing off an obstacle course wall. Even the most innocuous injury can cost a soldier and the Army dearly in terms of lost time and money.
Saving time and money
One soldier's visit to a troop medical clinic costs $250. A medical clinic visit could also steal away valuable hours that could be spent training since it's not uncommon for a soldier to wait several hours for treatment at a facility whose practitioners are often overloaded with patients.
It's no wonder that Lt. Col. Dean Weiler, commander of the 192nd's 2nd Battalion 54th Regiment, and Maj. Todd Burkhardt, the battalion's executive officer, reached out to Auburn's graduate athletic training program in early 2009. As the Army emphasizes the training of its personnel as "soldier-athletes," the concept of on-site evaluation and treatment of injuries by athletic trainers has gained traction.
Burkhardt and JoEllen Sefton, coordinator of Auburn's graduate athletic training program and co-director of the newly-created Warrior Research Center, quickly established the framework for a partnership. The Army has invested more than $585,000 in the program since 2009.
"People say it's like $30,000 to train one of these guys," Weiler said. "All we have to do is save a couple of them and the program is paying for itself."
Treatment and prevention
With the sudden increase in physical activity come stress fractures, sprains and contusions. The Auburn students quickly evaluate and treat soldiers who sustain injuries during physical training, taping soldiers' ankles, stretching their arms and legs and prescribing follow-up rehabilitation and treatments as needed.
"We'll get anything from a soldier falling off an obstacle course to stepping in a hole they didn't see when they were running to just the constant pounding of training," said Eileen Strube, a second-year graduate athletic trainer who helps rehabilitate injured soldiers in the 30th Adjutant General Battalion.
While most of the soldiers Strube works with require extensive rehabilitation, the Athletic Trainers help prevent injuries by helping identify trends. Each week, Sefton looks over data collected by the Athletic Trainers in an effort to pinpoint how and when injuries occur. The research findings may inspire the Army to prevent training injuries through the modification of physical training or by improving equipment.
"We're trying to find trends and ways to prevent injuries," Sefton said. "I'll compare the [training] phases they're in and see where those injuries occur and let the drill sergeants know."
Detecting trends and identifying preventative measures represent a few ways in which the Warrior Research Center has positioned itself as an asset. Based in the Department of Kinesiology, the center's researchers study a variety of problems, including improvement of rehabilitation and treatment of soldiers' injuries, prevention of obesity and lack of fitness, screening and treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, alternative treatments for post-deployment chronic neck pain, prevention of paratrooper jump landing injuries and the development of innovative soldier training methods.
The payoff for the Army and for Auburn University students is reciprocal. Weiler said Auburn's Department of Kinesiology has "endless" potential to help because of its faculty and graduate student expertise in the areas of gait analysis, injury prevention, nutrition, physiology and education methods.
The benefits for Auburn students are obvious – hands-on experience in a fast-paced professional setting. Most of the students possess experience working with high school and college athletic teams, but Warrior Athletic Training Program provides a much different test.
"We're not enlisted, but it's a chance to serve our country," first-year graduate athletic trainer Michael Hickey said. "These are the guys who are going in to protect us. It's a good feeling to help them. You're giving back to your country."
Last Updated: Jan. 21, 2011