NEW YORK – As if the possibility of getting killed in Iraq wasn’t enough to keep soldiers up at night, the Pentagon has begun issuing a caffeine-packed gum called “Stay Alert” to keep the troops from drooping.

It packs a jolt equal to a 6-ounce cup of coffee, and sleep researchers said it clears the head faster than a cup of Joe.

“When you chew the gum, the caffeine is extruded into the saliva and is absorbed right through the tissues in the mouth into the bloodstream,” said Dr. Tom Balkin of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

“It gets into the brain very quickly, in about five minutes. It takes coffee about 20 to 25 minutes.”

But there’s little chance “Stay Alert” will replace “Bazooka Joe” as the chew of choice for discriminating soldiers.

“The stuff doesn’t taste that good,” Balkin told the American Forces Press Service.

“Stay Alert” will not be issued to regular grunts, but there is “an experimental first-strike ration for the Special Forces,” Balkin said.

Dr. Marc Siegel, a Manhattan internist, said he doubts gum that has 100 milligrams of caffeine per stick poses a significant health risk to the troops – especially superfit Special Forces soldiers.

“Caffeine affects the body but these are healthy guys who shouldn’t have adverse reactions to that kind of dosage,” he said.

Going more than 48 hours without sleep, which is not uncommon in combat, can turn even the best soldier into a zombie. So over the years, the military has spent millions researching ways to keep sleep-deprived soldiers alert and ready for battle.

And since 2002, some GIs have taken to chewing another caffeinated gum called “Jolt Gum,” which reportedly packs even more punch – and tastes better – than “Stay Alert,” the Army Times reported.

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