Experts recommend adults sleep at least 7 hours per night for optimal health — yet many current and former military members fall short of that goal.

Recent data also suggests that almost 60% of active-duty military personnel and 83% of Veterans worldwide report experiencing poor-quality sleep.

Findings from 2020 and 2021 have shown that sleep disorders like insomnia are particularly common among Veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We spoke with five Veterans about their relationship with sleep throughout their lives, including during their time in the military. Read on to learn more.

Get help with your sleep

Sleep problems affect everyone, but they are particularly common among military Veterans.

Here are some resources to help you set a sleep routine, unwind, and get a better night’s rest. If you’re a Veteran experiencing sleep issues, consider contacting your local VA or consulting a doctor for help assessing your sleep and overall health.

And check out the following sleep-related VA resources:

  • Sleep Well
  • Hints for Encouraging Healthy Sleep
  • SleepEZ
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Zeke Medina, 38

As a former military member and pharmacist specializing in sleep coaching, I encountered substantial challenges maintaining proper sleep hygiene during my military service, particularly on night shifts. This experience prompted a personal exploration into effective sleep management strategies.

Before the military, my sleep history was marked by hours spent watching TV late into the night. I often woke up late, contributing to tardiness in school. I attributed these issues to my father’s sleep struggles and assumed it was inevitable for me, too.

During my military service, my sleep hygiene was suboptimal. Working night shifts at a trauma hospital, my schedule varied weekly. I juggled night shifts, college classes, and short naps, often lacking a consistent sleep routine. The military environment didn’t emphasize basic sleep hygiene. Prescriptions were the norm. Even when transitioning to a regular schedule, I struggled to fall asleep. It took years post-military to educate myself and realize the importance of proper sleep habits and aligning with my circadian rhythm.

Following my time in the military, insomnia persisted for 6–7 years, prompting a sleep study that confirmed the diagnosis. I was initially prescribed zolpidem (Ambien), but the medication proved problematic, especially when compounded by the stresses of parenting.

Recognizing the need for a holistic approach, I immersed myself in improving sleep hygiene to align with my body’s natural circadian rhythm. Key aspects for me included:

  • regulating exposure to sunlight
  • managing caffeine intake
  • incorporating outdoor walks
  • minimizing light exposure before bedtime

Engaging in physical activity in the morning or afternoon significantly contributes to building positive sleep pressure. This natural approach proved more effective in preparing my body for sleep and sustaining sleep duration than any sleeping pill on the market.

Nathan Wiuff, 35

I was in the Navy for 5 years, sleeping right under where planes landed on the aircraft carrier. It was very loud, especially when I worked nights and had to sleep during the day. The closest thing I can compare it to is a shotgun going off every 3 minutes.

The best trick I learned was to sleep with music on. If I had difficulty getting to sleep, I would imagine a black void with a flame like a lighter in the middle. Any thought that came to mind, I would acknowledge and then send into the flame, turning it into ash that slowly drifted up and disappeared. I would just keep throwing thoughts into the flame, and then, at some point, I would fall asleep.

Now that I am older with kids, I just have to have noise all the time. I hear a high-pitched tone that bothers me when I’m in silence — I’m pretty sure it’s tinnitus. For a while, I would watch “The Office” to go to sleep. Netflix’s “Headspace” is an interactive app for sleep that goes through some breathing exercises and tells you a story. Most of the time, I barely make it through the breathing exercises before I’m out.

Lately, I’ve been falling asleep to random TV or YouTube shows. As long as there is noise, it’s pretty easy for me to doze off.

Kenneth Bourne, 49

Before the military, I didn’t really pay attention to any particular sleep routine. I was generally a night owl. I’d go to bed late and hated the weekday school wake-ups. I tended to catch up on sleep on the weekends. I did exercise regularly, which likely contributed to better sleep quality.

While in the military, I would switch regularly between flying day missions one week and night missions another week, so it was often a difficult transition. I started to pay more attention to factors that could help me get a good night’s sleep since I would often have very early wake-up times and long days:

  • I started limiting my caffeine intake at night.
  • I tried to create a very dark environment for sleep.
  • I would also make the room colder at night, around 68 degrees.
  • I invested in a quality mattress.

These days, I continue some of the same practices I started in the military. I still limit caffeine, sleep in as dark of a room as possible, turn down the temperature at night, and invest in good mattresses. I’m more sensitive to noise now than before, so I also use a white noise machine. I continue to exercise regularly (four times a week).

I try to limit screen time at night and tend to stick to the same bedtime and wake-up times, even on weekends. I try to have a “winding down” routine at night, which typically involves reading.

If I’m having trouble falling asleep, which isn’t all that often, I do the box breathing method to relax my mind:

  • Expel all your air for 4 seconds.
  • Hold for 4 seconds.
  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 seconds.
  • Then, repeat the cycle.

Concentrating on breathing takes your mind off of other things.

Bridget Walton, 30

I’m a Marine Corps Veteran. I’ve always known how important sleep is for my health and performance. I’ve never been the type to pull all-nighters, even in college. If it was too late, I’d nap for 90 minutes and wake up at 1 a.m. or early in the morning to finish my work. I’ve generally always slept well.

While I was in the military or training, I planned my sleep schedule so I could get to sleep as soon as we were allowed to. I would snooze for about one REM cycle and then wake up to do whatever other studying or prep was necessary. I also think, in general, active-duty folks are amazing at sleeping in all sorts of places. I’ve slept on the floors of conference rooms, in boats, in hangars waiting for airplanes, and in the back of 7-ton trucks.

Unfortunately, sleep just isn’t the priority in the military. I definitely used caffeine when I needed to stay awake at night or when things were busy, which, of course, made my sleep quality worse.

These days, I avoid blue light and screens after sunset, black out my room as much as possible, avoid caffeine after noon, and sleep with a fan in my room so it’s nice and cool. I really try to protect my sleep time and am strict about getting to bed early so I can get 7–8 hours in.

Chris Mancik, 42

I’m a Naval Academy grad who served for over 13 years.

Before joining the military, I was an active high school kid who loved to stay up late and sleep as long as possible. During my time in the military, I became accustomed to the stereotypical lack of sleep.

I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) early in my military career, at age 23. Prior to the diagnosis, I was often tired, but I assumed it was due to the military lifestyle. In reality, what I thought was normal was anything but.

Now, my routine is more predictable — not because I left the military, but because I actually stick to a routine. I get up earlier now and more consistently than I ever did in the military, and I feel better than ever before.

My tips: Go to bed based on when you need to be up and practice active relaxation techniques like meditation or focused breathing before bed.