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Combat in extreme environments subject of new research at NMSU

Given the war in Iraq and the menace brewing in North Korea and elsewhere, the training soldiers receive to function in extreme environments is becoming a critical element for success.

Douglas Gillan, head of the psychology department, is part of the New Mexico State University extreme environment research team. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

thinking on such training by the military will "make soldiers safer and better prepared for what they have to face so they can be more effective in their missions," said Douglas Gillan, head of the psychology department at New Mexico State University. He's part of an NMSU research team working with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on studies related to fighting a war in extreme conditions. The study, for which NMSU has received a $525,000 grant, will take about a year.

"It's clear through history extreme environments have been one determinant in who wins war," Gillan said.

Scientists and military experts know extreme weather negatively impacts a soldier's cognitive and physical abilities and that can affect his or her effectiveness in a war situation.

A person in an extremely cold environment may dwell on keeping warm, Gillan said, and engage in activities to help relieve the situation. That can be a distraction. Extremes can cause physical illness. That was evident early in the war in Afghanistan as the military saw soldiers becoming ill because of mountain sickness, said Jonathan Benson, another member of the NMSU research team.

"What seems banal or normal to us can be hazardous in a combat situation," he added.

Benson not only is videotaping current training procedures in places such as the Marine Corps' Quantico base in Virginia, but also is researching films, photos and videos from Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and Grenada.

Jim Holden-Rhodes, currently director of the intelligence studies program at NMSU, is working on the project as a subject matter expert, drawing upon his experiences with U.S. Marine Corps Reconnaissance units.

Besides the known basics, very little research has been conducted on the combined effects of different stresses on an individual, NMSU experts said.

Jim Cowie, director of the Computing Research Laboratory and psychology professor, said the research will show what experts currently know about performance in extreme environments, what training is being done and where there might be gaps that should be filled in that training.

Key is what happens as an individual reacts in multiple extremes and how that impacts a team. The issue of environment includes the stresses of urban warfare and extends to the differences in stresses as duties change from fighting a war to peacekeeping in a region.

If there are gaps in current training procedures and need for additional sites for training, it could have implications for the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure process, Benson noted. NMSU, working with the NRL, will be developing a list of the research efforts needed to fill those gaps.

Preliminary experiments on the effects of stress on team performance will be carried out in the psychology department at NMSU and at the NRL.

Meanwhile an in-depth search of military and news archives as well as research on documents in Chinese, Russian and French will be conducted.

Not only can the military benefit by knowing and understanding how best to train soldiers for combat in all extremes, the research also will be helpful in recruiting the type of infantry personnel needed for advanced urban assault training.

"It's a dangerous world," Gillan said, adding no one wants to see more troops committed to combat anywhere. "But it's smart for the military, for the Department of Defense to think ahead."

A preliminary report is expected by mid December.