CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 LUKE ANDERSON
A Company, 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Group
Connecticut Army National Guard
Each war has an iconic symbol. For the Global War on Terror, that symbol was an 8-ounce can of Rip It energy drink. Each can packs 100 mg of taurine, 100 mg of inositol, 80 mg of caffeine and 3 mg of guarana seed extract. In comparison, each can has about the same caffeine as a cup of coffee. If you deployed to Iraq, you drank Rip It — whether it was in a guard tower during those hellish hours between 0200 and 0400 or on long convoys escorting KBR trucks between bases.
For us, a bunch of newly minted WO1s and junior CW2s in an assault company in 2011, Rip It was a way of life in the cockpit. We would start our missions with crew Rip Its during the brief; and before the long leg between Ramadi and Ayn al-Asad Air Base (a one-hour flight over the open desert), we would do “Ramadi shots.” The entire crew in each aircraft would crack a can of Rip It and chug it before Chalk 2 would make its beacon call before taking off.
Rip It was a quick pick-me-up to keep us alert during the most mundane missions. For some, however, this energy drink became an addiction — a way to make it through the missions, quad charts, meetings and every other responsibility throughout the deployment. We had pilots that were so exhausted that they would miss morning crew briefs. The other pilots and crew chiefs would be sent to their rooms to drag them out of bed to fly. These pilots would crush Rip Its throughout the flight to stay awake; so much so that at the end of the mission day, a pile of empty cans would fall out of the door as they exited the aircraft.
By then, these guys would be so jacked up on caffeine that they would become insomniacs, unable to fall asleep until it was almost show time for the next day’s mission. This resulted in these pilots not getting adequate rest and starting the cycle all over again, using Rip It to keep alert and operational. If you’re in aviation, I’m sure you’re saying, “Why didn’t someone say something,” or, “Why didn’t they reset those pilots.” We would talk about the bad situation those pilots were in amongst ourselves, but we never brought it up as an issue. We all covered for those pilots because there were missions to fly. We needed everyone to complete those missions, and no one wanted to turn one down. We all wanted to do our best, and everyone was doing the best with what they had.
In the end, we executed 100 percent of our missions and all of our guys made it home safely. But that wasn’t a guarantee during the deployment. Our unit took a risk by looking the other way and allowing those guys to keep flying. If we had a mishap, I’m sure the legacy of our unit would be far different. We would be the unit that pushed our guys too hard for too long, which allowed the holes in the Swiss cheese model to align. We very easily could have been a safety brief, but we were lucky.
The safe and conservative answer would have been to reset those pilots who were relying too much on these cans of caffeine. We may have had to drop or delay a mission, but it could have helped those pilots get some adequate rest. We also could have restricted the amount of Rip It each pilot would be allowed to consume in a duty day. Most people probably think, “These guys are pilots. They should be responsible enough to regulate their own caffeine intake.” But in certain circumstances, it became apparent some weren’t that responsible.
A lot of times, people think a chemical dependency as some sort of addiction to pills or alcohol; but that’s not always the case. Chemical dependency comes in many forms, and the one that catches a lot of people off guard is a caffeine addiction from energy drinks or coffee. If we let caffeine get the best of us, it can alter our mental state, making it difficult to operate at a normal level.
We have to watch out for each other, recognizing when someone in our formation is having an issue. More importantly, we need to do something to help those individuals get back on track. Don’t look away. Face the hard truth and do what needs to be done.
Energy drink consumption is associated with many health risks, primarily related to their caffeine content. Potential risks include:
- Caffeine overdose (which can lead to a number of symptoms, including palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, convulsions and, in some cases, even death)
- Type 2 diabetes – as high consumption of caffeine reduces insulin sensitivity
- Late miscarriages, low birth weight and stillbirths in pregnant women
- Neurological and cardiovascular effects
- Sensation-seeking behavior
- Use and dependence on other harmful substances
- Poor dental health