Almost every night, people close their curtains to go to sleep; but for Soldiers stationed in the Fairbanks area, regular curtains will not suffice. Getting quality sleep in the middle of summer, when daylight is nearly 24 hours a day, is a challenge that can adversely affect mental health. U.S. Army Garrison Alaska is taking a multifaceted approach to address this problem and a small but effective piece of this work is by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. They worked with Fort Wainwright and Fort Greely to install 2,740 blackout shades in 30 barracks this year to improve sleep quality and in turn, enhance the mental health and well-being of Alaska’s warfighters.
“Before the blackout curtains, [the Soldiers] would try to find creative ways to block out the light to attempt to get a good night’s sleep,” said Spc. Austin Mooney, president of the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program for U.S. Army Garrison Alaska. They used tinfoil, bedsheets and other makeshift window coverings but those measures did not always work well.
The installs are one of many changes happening as a result of feedback identified by the 30 members from various backgrounds and organizations on the U.S. Army’s Quality of Life Task Force after they looked at a vast amount of data and listened to soldiers’ feedback.
A study from 2012 concluded that constant light exposure experienced in high latitudes adversely affects the circadian system. However, the use of blinds, eye masks and a sleep schedule can all counter this effect.
“The Army quickly tasked our team with installing these blackout blinds in barracks all over the installations,” said Mark DeRocchi, chief of the engineering, construction and operations divisions at the Alaska District and Corps’ representative on the task force. “These shades filter out almost all sunlight entering into the room which improves the quality of sleep during the summer months.”
DeRocchi also added that the Corps typically deals with multimillion-dollar programs that construct large and new infrastructure, so installing blackout shades was a relatively small project. But, it has been a priority for the Army and district alike.
“They put time, money and effort into making sure that changes were made, and it was an honor to be a part of the task force and changes from the beginning,” DeRocchi said.
The Corps focused on getting the curtains installed by early summer to coincide with the return of the unit from deployment and months when daylight is at its peak.
“The project was fast moving with installs starting in March,” said Marion Dawag, project manager at the Alaska District. “The garrisons wanted to do something now and see results quickly to provide tangible changes as fast as they could for the Soldiers.”
However, there was an additional factor the district did not anticipate as the project began.
“Getting the project off the ground was difficult because it was right when COVID-19 hit, but the Corps brought in local contractors to perform the work,” said Dennis Kennedy, special projects manager for the Directorate of Public Works at Fort Wainwright.
Typically, the work would be performed by contractors brought in from the Lower 48, but the district needed to quickly adjust the plan to keep on schedule.
“COVID-19 came hard and fast, but we were able to negotiate changes in how they worked [on this project],” Kennedy.
Some of the new COVID-19 safety measures implemented include ensuring that cleaning crews came before and after curtain installation to keep the crew and the Soldiers safe. Workers also wore personal protective equipment, designed to minimize the spread of the virus, to include facemasks and gloves when they went into each room.
“We were involved with a lot of Soldiers – we interacted with nearly every single Soldier on post – so we had to be super cautious,” Kennedy said.
To ensure compliance, safety checks were conducted to ensure contractors complied with the new measures.
In addition to workers, there were supply challenges to overcome as well.
“Our goal was to get blinds installed by May 1,” Dawag said. “Because of COVID-19, we had delays from manufacturers in getting side rails for some of the blinds. So, we made sure all curtains were installed by early summer to filter out most of the light and then went back to install the remaining pieces as they became available.”
This allowed for Soldiers in the barracks to have minimal amounts of light in their sleeping quarters for the summer and allow them to get adequate amounts of sleep.
The next phase of the project includes installing more than 300 additional black out blinds for remaining barracks on the installation.
“While the changes are not yet done, it is neat to see the work of the task force, which I was blessed to be a part of, and the actions of 30 people come to fruition,” DeRocchi said. “There are many more changes coming into Fort Wainwright to help Soldiers, their families and the unit and we are excited to be a part of it.”
To continue the quality of life projects in the coming year, the Alaska District will begin renovations of dayrooms in the barracks to include modernized communal spaces, kitchens and high-speed Wi-Fi to further improve the Soldier accommodations.