Sleep Perspective: Sleeping in a Conflict Zone
4 min read
Last Modified 23 June 2021 First Added 24 March 2017
I learned many valuable things from my years in the military, one being that I am capable of sleeping absolutely anywhere so long as my head is comfortable. This comfort can come from something as basic as a small bean bag pillow, which is about the same width as a bag of sugar but lays almost flat. It may sound strange but if that bag is the only thing between your head and the ground then it is a valuable piece of kit. I carried one of these little bags with me everywhere in the forces. I still do if I’m off on an adventure somewhere now.
One of the worst situations that I ever slept in whilst I was in the Special Forces was behind enemy lines, in between some tanks in the middle of a sandstorm. It was an extreme situation, but I had to make sure that I was as well rested as possible in order for me to get up and do my job properly once I was back on duty.
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The way a soldier sleeps in a combat zone is the exact opposite to how anyone else would sleep in any normal day-to-day situation. The last thing you want is get too comfortable or into a really deep sleep. You are in an uncomfortable environment and although a soldier’s rest is extremely important, you must always be prepared for action.
When in a combat zone, soldiers sleep in close proximity to one another (so you can always hear snoring) and on rotation patterns of roughly 4-5 hour shifts. Although this is a good length of time, you can always hear mortars and RPG’s going off and you always know that you will have to be ready for action. This makes for a very restless sleep.
The only thing that it can be compared to in normal life is trying to sleep with a new-born baby in your house. You never fully settle as you know that you will have to get up and feed the baby. Their little noises and cries wake you just as you drift off so you quickly jump up to check on them. You somehow go from being half asleep to fully alert because you know you are needed and have a job to do. It’s exactly the same reaction for a soldier.
It isn’t only the background noise and sleep rotations that make for an uncomfortable sleep in a combat zone. Soldiers either sleep on small fold-out cot beds that are just made from a metal frame with canvas stretched across it or sometimes on just a thin roll out mat with a sleeping bag on top of it. We call this sleeping bag the ‘golden slug’! When you are out in the field it is imperative that you get into your sleeping bag and rest whenever you have the chance. Quite often, you don’t know when you will get to rest again if you are behind enemy lines.
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When you are cold, soaking wet and tired, just getting to change into your dry kit and climb into your sleeping bag to warm up and rest feels amazing. Even if you are only in the sleeping bag for an hour and don’t get to sleep properly it lets you warm up and feel better which recharges your batteries and gets you ready for action again. In some situations, a rest is all you get, so the warmth and comfort of that sleeping bag really is golden. It’s an extremely important factor in keeping soldiers capable of functioning on missions and in combat at the high levels that they need to.
So, whether it’s on a cot bed, in a golden slug or just with your head on a tiny bean bag pillow, a soldier’s rest is one of their most important tools. Even though it is almost impossible to get a proper night’s sleep, a 20-minute nap or even an hour of relaxing plays an enormously important role in a soldier being ready to carry out their duties to the absolute best of their abilities.