Army STARRS New Soldier Study (NSS): The First Days of Service
The New Soldier Study (NSS) component will let the research team learn about soldiers as they enter the Army. To capture this moment in time, soldiers are asked in their first days of initial entry training to consider volunteering for Army STARRS.
New soldiers who join Army STARRS will complete a confidential laptop-based questionnaire. Survey topics include personal health, personal characteristics, and prior experiences. Participants also will be asked for permission to link their responses with records that the Army normally collects for administrative or operational purposes (including medical and personnel records). In addition, participants may volunteer to donate a blood sample for Army STARRS. Participation is strictly voluntary and all data from the survey, administrative records, and blood samples remains private (see Confidentiality below).
Every research study faces challenges and 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. Finding the time and space each week to survey hundreds of people was a challenge. In fact, the NSS survey is a two-part booklet so the team needs to work with each group of new soldiers twice. 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 three-part process. In the first part, new soldiers learn about the study and review and sign consent forms. In the second and third parts, participants meet to complete the computerized questionnaire.
Confidentiality is vital to every part of Army STARRS, including the NSS. Participant names are removed from all questionnaires and replaced with a survey number. The Army removes identifying information from all administrative records before sending them to the Army STARRS data enclave. The research team will use a special computer program to link data from the NSS survey, blood samples, and administrative records in such a way that the participating soldiers cannot be personally identified in the research data.
An individual soldier’s responses and other data will be combined with information from other soldiers. Researchers will analyze the combined information and report on their findings. Survey responses will not be used to evaluate a new soldier’s abilities. Individual answers will never be shared with anyone in the Army unless a soldier indicates imminent danger of self-harm or harm to someone else. In this case, the individual will be referred to the Army chaplain-on-call for follow-up consultation. Conversations with the chaplain are privileged.
The technical team at the University of Michigan programmed the two-part NSS survey into hundreds of laptops for each installation. They also developed a network that allows each laptop to securely feed data wirelessly to a portable server as soldiers complete the questionnaires. At the end of each survey day, the site coordinator uses another secure system to upload survey responses from the portable servers to a data enclave housed at the University of Michigan. The team does not use military resources for this purpose, and the data are not handled by anyone in the Army.
The University of Michigan technical team developed special shipping protocols and containers to safely move the hundreds of computers from their offices in Michigan to each of the installations participating in the NSS. In addition, the Army STARRS site coordinators ensure that the laptops and servers are collected and securely stored between survey sessions.
Logging in and Linking Data
Soldiers who volunteer for Army STARRS put their names on consent forms, but confidentiality is extremely important to the success of the study. Therefore, soldiers cannot use their names or other identifying information when they complete their two-part surveys. However, the two parts of the survey need 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 receives a wrist band during the consent process. Participants use the code on their bands to log in and begin the computerized survey. Later, researchers will use a computer program to link de-identified Army administrative data to each survey ID. This is done with a 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 addresses some very personal topics, the Army and the research team consider the needs of any soldier who has a strong emotional response. Researchers and the Army worked to develop a number of safety measures that protect soldiers and their privacy. Resource cards with helpful phone numbers were created and are distributed to every soldier when they first learn about the study. After the survey session, every participant must fill out a card indicating whether or not s/he would like to meet confidentially with a chaplain. It is possible that a participant taking the computerized survey might indicate imminent danger of self- harm or harming someone else. In this situation, the computer will send a private message to the survey team who will contact the chaplain-on-call. The chaplain will contact the soldier privately. This is the only situation where survey results are shared with a member of the military. Communications with a chaplain are privileged.