When you think of a war zone, or our troops heading off to war, many images come to mind. But one thing that isn’t always at the forefront of the minds of those of us who haven’t been there is sleep.
As we know, sleep is crucial for our bodies. It helps regenerate and heal the body, and it also helps restore and revive our minds to prepare for the tasks of the next day. It would make sense then, that soldiers in a time of war need quality sleep more than ever. (Source)
So, for the civilians who do not face war, those of us who can’t imagine what it must be like, we start to wonder about the small luxuries, like sleeping, that we have. This leads many of us to question: How do soldiers actually sleep in war zones? After examining personal recounts of war through books, articles, and even documentaries – the overwhelming conclusion is that soldiers learn to sleep wherever and whenever they can.
Living in an active war zone is a 24/7 job, so the fighting troops have had to learn to find safe places to rest, take sleep in shifts, rely on power naps when they can, and use resources like their uniforms to help boost their quality of sleep.
The reality of how soldiers sleep in war zones is a multifaceted equation, and can often involve more than “slip on pajamas, brush teeth, climb into bed, drift into dreamworld.” So, let’s have an in-depth look at what it’s really like for a soldier to perform one of our most basic needs as a human: Sleep.
How Do Soldiers Fall Asleep?
Some veterans have explained that sometimes being able to fall asleep with artillery crashing around you, the threat of attack, comrades walking around or making noise – all of these things can make the act of falling asleep challenging. To resolve this, many people rely on relaxation techniques. These techniques include full-body muscle relaxation and visualization to place the body in a peaceful, calm environment. And sometimes this works. At first.
But the war doesn’t always cooperate like that. And the reality is that this “two-minute trick” isn’t always necessary after months on the front line and days without sleep. So, when it comes to the noise, often, the sheer lack of sleep and desire will be stronger than the disturbance of guards chatting two foxholes over.
The knowledge that you may not know when you’ll have another chance for shuteye will help cancel out the noises that, after some time, simply become background noise.
If it’s daytime, and the light is the concern, soldiers will use whatever resources that they have, such as helmets, hats, blankets, other pieces of clothing – anything to help block out the light and give their circadian rhythm a fighting chance.
What Do Soldiers Wear To Sleep?
Most often, soldiers will wear a simple shirt and shorts to sleep. If time and luxury are not on their side, they will find comfort in removing as much of their uniform as is comfortable.
During times of high potential attacks, soldiers often find that they must deal with sleeping in their uniforms in order to be prepared to wake up at a moment’s notice. This could even mean sleeping in their combat boots.
How Much Sleep Do Soldiers Get?
Some vets will say that they get as much as they can, but will admit to being accustomed to no more than 4 hours a night. Due to constant safety rotations that last from 2-4 hours, soldiers spend most nights taking sleep in turns. If their location is active or an attack is expected, there are no shifts, leaving everyone awake to stand guard.
Due to the shocking low sleep rates for active-duty soldiers, many studies have been done and concerns raised with the military to find solutions to allow for more sleep. Previously, soldiers were expected to be able to perform on roughly 4 hours of sleep; however it’s been found that this lack of sleep, especially in a high-stress environment, has led to long-term sleep disturbances, such as insomnia. (Source)
If you are interested in how soldiers slept during the civil war I highly recommend checking out the book Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (link to Amazon).
Where Do Soldiers Sleep?
As many war veterans will tell you, a soldier in an active war zone will sleep anywhere that he or she can. Here are some common wartime sleep locations; some are what you would expect; some are ones that many civilians may struggle to picture. And even these are just a few of the places that our soldiers have found to rest.
- Tents – Tents are an ideal image of what we picture for sleeping arrangements at war. Due to limited space or resources, there may be times when a company must fill these tents to the brim to allow everyone a safe space. This type of living arrangement can mean sleeping in very close proximity to your neighbor, even using them as a pillow.
- Cots – Cots provide some semblance of a bed for our soldiers at war. However, if a troop is forced to move often or the cots are otherwise destroyed, there may come the point when the bed is more of a hindrance than a comfortable place to sleep.
- Foam mattresses – Like cots, some companies are provided with small portable beds. Soldiers may also find them in abandoned locations or places that have been taken over.
- Dugout holes/Foxholes – A familiar scene for taking rest is in foxholes. We’ve seen it in movies and it turns out to be true. Some foxholes are meant for one or two soldiers and double as a firing pit when under attack. This is often a place where soldiers take shifts for sleeping.
- Humvee tank – Sometimes, soldiers have to get creative. There have been stories of soldiers securing themselves to a tank and finding a way to take a nap while the Humvee was relocating to another camp.
- Under stationary vehicles – While some may be brave enough to sleep on top of a moving tank, resting underneath one is one way to get some peace while also feeling protected.
- Bunkers built from anything – When stationed in a place without much cover, soldiers have learned to use the tools that they have around them. Protective shelters can be made from anything such as trees, sandbags, backpacks, and more.
- Local abandoned buildings – During takeover or when occupying abandoned towns, soldiers have the opportunity to use structures, such as farmhouses, and materials, such as old beds, to find a few moments of rest.
What’s important to remember about some of these sleeping locations is that, while strange, they serve a crucial purpose – protection from the elements and potential attacks. While soldiers are in their most vulnerable state and with the ever-changing face of the front lines, if and when a soldier finds an opportunity to rest, it’s in his best interest to protect him/herself as much as possible.
If you are looking for a military-grade tent, I personally recommend the Military Spec Pop-Up Sleeping System (link to Amazon), super compact and light, while also being extremely water resistant.
What About PTSD?
Understandably, it doesn’t take long for the poor sleep conditions of a live war zone to have an effect on sleep. For this reason, many soldiers find it difficult to sleep even when they are completely exhausted. These soldiers often find that even if they can fall asleep, they awaken to any noises or sudden movements around them.
Unfortunately, some of these men and women take these sleep issues back home with them, leading to many years or even a lifetime of sleep challenges. (Source)
Specific war zone locations have different procedures for how sleeping arrangements work. For example, tropical countries are much warmer and can be more humid. In places like this, having two set of uniforms is crucial. Often troops in these areas will sleep on hammocks, using one set of uniforms for sleep, and changing back into the other set for daytime wear. Having two uniforms enables them to always be prepared with dry attire in the event of a nighttime attack.
A Soldier’s Sleep Reality
Despite the number of claims that a few simple tricks will help you sleep like a soldier, the truth is that the environment of a war zone, the high-stress circumstances, and the lack of importance placed on adequate sleep are causing unhealthy sleep patterns in our front-line soldiers and veterans.
While the desire to sleep for them is real, the opportunity and ability to sleep is not always there.