The New Soldier Study (NSS) is one of five main parts of the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS). Data from the NSS component help the research team learn more about the men and women who chose to enter the military as they begin their Army careers. To capture this information, soldiers were asked, in their first hours of initial entry training, to consider volunteering for Army STARRS. Data collection took place at three training installations and began in February 2011. By the time the data collection phase ended in November 2012, more than 55,000 soldiers had volunteered for the study.
New soldiers who joined Army STARRS completed a confidential laptop-based questionnaire on topics including personal health, personal characteristics, and prior experiences. In addition, participants could volunteer to donate a blood sample to the study. Participants also were asked for permission to link their responses with records that the Army normally collects for administrative or operational purposes (these include medical and personnel records). Participation for each of these parts of the NSS was strictly voluntary and all data from the questionnaires, administrative records, and blood samples remain private (see Confidentiality, below).
Every research study faces challenges and has opportunities to develop new methods. This is also true with Army STARRS. Listed below are some of the more interesting aspects of launching the NSS.
Finding the Time
New soldiers have a very compressed training schedule and finding the time and space each week to survey hundreds of people was a challenge. In fact, the NSS survey was broken into several parts, which increased the amount of coordination needed. The research team and Army representatives from Ft. Jackson, Ft. Benning, Ft. Leonard Wood, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Installation Management Command (IMCOM), Medical Command (MEDCOM), and the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army spent a great deal of time synchronizing the needs of the study, the needs of the Army, and available resources. The final result was a successful four-part process. In the first part, new soldiers learned about the study and reviewed and signed consent forms. In the second part, volunteers donated a vial of blood as part of their regular processing into the Army, and in the third and fourth parts, participants completed the computerized questionnaire.
Confidentiality is vital to every part of Army STARRS, including the NSS. Participant names were removed from all questionnaires and replaced with survey ID numbers. The Army removes identifying information from all administrative records before sending them to Army STARRS. The research team uses a computer program to link data from the NSS questionnaire to blood samples and administrative records in such a way that individuals cannot be personally identified in the research data.
Each participant’s responses and other data were combined with information from other soldiers. Researchers continue to analyze the combined information and report on their findings. Individual responses are not analyzed and questionnaire responses are not used to evaluate a new soldier’s abilities. An individual’s answers are never shared with anyone in the Army. The only exception to this occurred during the data collection phase of the study. If a participant indicated imminent danger of self-harm or harm to someone else, civilian survey administrators asked the Army chaplain-on-call to contact the soldier. Conversations between the chaplain and the soldier were confidential.
The team at the University of Michigan programmed the two-part NSS questionnaire into hundreds of laptops for each of the three NSS installations. They also developed a mini network that allowed each laptop to securely feed data wirelessly to a portable server as each participant completed the questionnaire. At the end of each survey day, the site coordinator used another secure system to upload questionnaire responses from the portable servers to a data warehouse at the University of Michigan. The team did not use military resources for this purpose, and the data were not handled by anyone in the Army.
The University of Michigan’s team developed special shipping protocols and containers to safely move the hundreds of computers from their offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to each of the three installations participating in the NSS. After arrival, the Army STARRS site coordinators ensured that the laptops and servers were collected and securely stored between survey sessions.
Logging in and Linking Data
Soldiers who volunteered for Army STARRS put their names on consent forms, but confidentiality is extremely important to the success of the study. Therefore, soldiers did not use their names or other identifying information when they completed their two-part questionnaires. Nevertheless, the two parts of the questionnaire needed to be linked to each other and to the administrative data supplied by the Army. To solve this challenge, the University of Michigan developed plastic wrist bands with unique survey ID numbers. Each participant received a wristband during the consent process and used the code on the band to log into the computerized questionnaire. Later, researchers used a computer program to link de-identified Army administrative data to each survey ID. This was done with the Soldier’s permission and in such a way that the participating soldiers cannot be personally identified in the research data. Linking data will allow researchers to follow new soldiers through the various phases of Army service.
Because the Army STARRS questionnaire addressed some very personal topics, the Army and the research team considered the needs of any soldier who had a strong emotional response to the questions. Researchers and the Army developed a number of measures to protect soldiers’ welfare in addition to their privacy. Resource cards with phone numbers for programs such as Military OneSource, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline, and others, were distributed to every soldier during Army STARRS briefings. Following each survey session, every participant was required to fill out a card indicating whether or not s/he would like to meet confidentially with a chaplain. To ensure confidentiality, the card was sealed in an envelope before it was delivered to the civilian survey team. The team delivered the sealed envelopes to the chaplain-on-call. In the event that a participant taking the computerized questionnaire demonstrated imminent danger of self-harm or harm to someone else, the computer sent a private message to the civilian survey administration team who contacted the chaplain-on-call. The chaplain reached out to the soldier privately. This was the only situation where information was shared with a member of the military. Communications with a chaplain are confidential.