The following is a editorial submitted to the NCO Journal. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
“Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality heroic stuff is a bunch of crap.” — George S. Patton Jr.
I read with keen interest the NCO Journal article by Maj. Jeff Jager and Aaron Kennedy, published Oct. 26. Several important “sweeping generalizations” from Soldiers and the article, “Is Physical Fitness Overvalued in the Army?” came to light.
“Acceptable fitness is possessing the physical strength, endurance and mental toughness to overcome the stress of harsh, austere environments, as well as the physically demanding tasks associated with full-spectrum combat operations.”
“Well, I think the purpose should be to gauge a Soldier’s ability to perform his or her job in combat. But in reality the Army PT test is more about ease of administration, maintaining appearance — a very narrow subjective view on what it means to be physically fit.”
“The APFT is a horrible metric, and there is too much stock placed in it. Neither the pushup or situp has ever helped me out in combat, and although I can run sub 13-minute 2-mile, I am certain I will never outrun any caliber of round. The APFT does not translate and cannot assess a Soldier’s ability to fight and win in combat.”
“The subjectively defined ‘physical fitness’ has resulted in disproportionate focus on ensuring that Soldiers are able to pass APFTs … This disproportionate focus has created an approach to physical readiness training in which individuals and units ‘train for the test’ instead of ‘training how we fight.’”
I believe that comments such as these reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what the APFT is for, how physical fitness fits in with overall training and how a comprehensive approach to standards-based training is part of unit readiness.
The objective of Army Physical Readiness Training is to enhance combat readiness and leadership effectiveness by developing and sustaining a high level of physical readiness in Soldiers as measured by strength, endurance, mobility, body composition standards, healthy lifestyle, warrior ethos and self-discipline. As outlined in the index G-9, AR 350-1, the objective is never listed as an individual goal; rather, all physical readiness training has as its fundamental objective to enhance combat readiness.
In this context, let me posit a sweeping generalization of my own: Any unit may rise to have a small percentage of their Soldiers get over 290, or even 300, on their PT test. We see this in the Army all the time when small unit leaders/commanders set up some arbitrary or capricious APFT standard, and we usually high-five ourselves as our PT studs finish running a sub-13-minute 2-mile run. But this exceeding the standard is meaningless to overall readiness of a platoon or company, because in many of these same units we see a significant percentage of Soldiers who cannot pass the minimum APFT standard. What we should be celebrating is the company command team that consistently gets 100 percent of its Soldiers to pass the APFT. And though accomplishing this standard is impressive, it is fundamentally part of a much bigger standard.
The higher standard is the overall readiness, which is outlined by hundreds of different “readiness” standards. Show me a platoon, company or battalion that consistently meets “every” standard, and I’ll show you the best unit in the Army. Said another way, show me a unit who is a flash-in-the-pan PT stud unit, and I’ll show you the same unit that consistently fails to meet medical readiness, vehicle/equipment readiness, property accountability readiness, crew/collective training readiness or a host of other critically identified Army readiness standards.
In a sense, this discussion, the surveys and article on APFT becomes a very shallow discussion if not taken in context with what Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, has been hammering home to our Army for more than a year. Readiness is much broader than an individual APFT; it is a part of a collective and comprehensive view toward physical, social, spiritual, emotional and family resiliency for individuals.
But more importantly, standards outlined principally in AR 350-1 are not designed for individual Soldier fitness, but rather for Army organizational readiness. Every unit commander/first sergeant team in the Army today is busy and simply must risk compromising some aspects of training standards to best meet its readiness mission.
Finally, the authors conclude the article with a superb recommendation about the misplaced focus on high APFT scores and how this has turned selection and promotion boards and process into a breeding ground that places an overemphasis on PT at the expense of leadership and intelligence. To that I say, “Spot on.” A true test of intelligence and leadership at all levels is how creative, adaptive and inspirational leaders balance getting after the top goal — readiness.
Show me the leaders at any level who can meet all of the standards rather than a handful of arbitrary standards, and I’ll show you a command team that is truly ready.
Retired Col. Michael C. Sevcik served in the Army for more than 30 years and has commanded at the company, battalion and brigade level. He teaches at the Army’s School for Command Preparation, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
Anyone who has spent even the shortest amount of time with the U.S. Army recognizes immediately the importance that is placed on physical fitness. Every weekday morning, at U.S. Army facilities around the world, Soldiers do Physical Training; this might be the one of the few universal truths in the Army. As Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey explained to the Army Times, “PT might not be the most important thing you do that day, but it is the most important thing you do every day in the United States Army. The bottom line is, wars are won during normally scheduled physical training hours of 6:30 to 9 a.m.”
The U.S. Army is a profession of arms, and physical capability is necessary to achieve the mission. U.S. Army Field Manual 7-22 explains that:
Military leaders have always recognized that the effectiveness of Soldiers depends largely on their physical condition. Full spectrum operations place a premium on the Soldier’s strength, stamina, agility, resiliency and coordination. Victory — and even the Soldier’s life — so often depend upon these factors. To march long distances in fighting load through rugged country and to fight effectively upon arriving at the area of combat … to lift and carry heavy objects; to keep going for many hours without sleep or rest — all these activities of warfare and many others require superb physical conditioning.
According to a survey we conducted in June and July 2016, 80 percent of respondents agreed with FM 7-22’s view on PT. According to the same survey, though, a large portion of the force misunderstands the reasons the Army does PT, asserts that Army PT is not done in accordance with doctrine, and believes that both the ways physical fitness is measured and how physical fitness test scores are used in administrative processes is misguided. NCOs can lead the charge in correcting each of these issues.
The value of physical fitness
We asked survey respondents to define acceptable physical fitness standards. Answer trends, as shown in the word cloud below, indicate that “able,” “job,” “physical” and “combat” were prominently used words in these descriptions.
On the other hand, many survey respondents stated something close to “being able to do your job” was the acceptable physical standard; many others said something close to passing the Army Physical Fitness Test was the acceptable standard. The following is representative of many given responses: “Acceptable fitness is possessing the physical strength, endurance and mental toughness to overcome the stress of harsh, austere environments as well as the physically demanding tasks associated with full-spectrum combat operations.”
We also asked respondents to explain their views of the APFT. In summary, the APFT is not very popular or viewed as effective: 53 percent of respondents were not satisfied with the APFT; 69 percent said the APFT does not accurately measure fitness; and 59 percent said the situp should be replaced. Unfortunately, however, 47 percent of the survey respondents serve in units that focus physical fitness training on ensuring Soldiers can pass the APFT.
The word cloud below highlights the thoughts of survey respondents about the purpose of the APFT.
Some of the key concepts regarding fitness (for example, physical fitness, physical readiness, combat, overall fitness) are represented in this word cloud, perhaps best captured by the response that APFTs are meant as “a tool to give commanders and other leaders a general idea of individuals’ and units’ physical readiness. With results, leaders can adjust routines to prepare Soldiers and formations for future efforts.”
However, other ideas, such as “check the box,” “look” and “appearance” also take places of prominence. The following assessments represent the more negative perceptions of the force on the purpose of the APFT:
APFTs are “supposed to physically prepare Soldiers for combat but in my opinion it’s more of a ‘check the box’ feature and not capable of adequately training Soldiers for deployment.”
“What it is: A base line objective way to measure a very specific set of physical tasks. What it should be: It should prepare Soldiers for the physical and mental strain of war.”
“Well, I think the purpose should be to gauge a Soldier’s ability to perform his or her job in combat. But in reality the Army PT test is more about ease of administration, maintaining appearance — a very narrow subjective view on what it means to be physically fit.”
Or, as Sgt. 1st Class Zach Krapfl of the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group put it, “The APFT is a horrible metric, and there is too much stock placed in it. Neither the pushup or situp has ever helped me out in combat, and although I can run sub 13:00 two-mile, I am certain I will never outrun any caliber of round. The APFT does not translate and cannot assess a Soldier’s ability to fight and win in combat.”
The subjectively defined “physical fitness” has resulted in disproportionate focus on ensuring that Soldiers are able to pass APFTs, even though the guidance and directives in Army doctrine are worded to avoid such practices. This disproportionate focus has created an approach to physical readiness training in which individuals and units “train for the test” instead of “training how we fight.”
We also asked survey respondents about perceived or actual links between PT and leadership. A majority of the respondents, 78 percent, believe that leaders should exceed minimum APFT standards. Almost half (49 percent) of the respondents view those who achieve low APFT scores more negatively, although a low APFT score results in no change in impression according to 41 percent of the respondents. This mindset carries over to 43 percent of the respondents who think that those who fail an APFT are “unfit to lead” and the 31 percent who believes that an APFT failure should equate to reassignment to a nonleadership position. Based on these views, it is not surprising that 63 percent find that a link exists between physical fitness and leadership. On the other hand, based on the views above, it is surprising that 55 percent of the survey respondents did not believe that one must be physically fit to be a good leader, and that 83 percent think someone who is not physically fit can be a good leader.
These results suggest that a problem exists in the way in which physical fitness, as measured by the APFT, impacts administrative processes such as assignments, selections and promotions.
APFT scores impact these processes in a variety of ways. For example, by deriving a large percentage of points in enlisted promotion processes from APFT scores, the Army overly incentivizes the importance of a high APFT score (noting, meanwhile, that a high APFT score does not directly correlate to high physical fitness). At the junior enlisted level, this reinforces the idea that a high APFT score is of the utmost importance, above concepts such as military professionalism, education or accomplishments. This condition exists even though survey respondents ranked duty performance and potential as more important than physical fitness for junior enlisted personnel. 42 percent of the respondents believe that physical fitness is given excessive consideration in promotion, selection, assignment, schooling and retention decisions. The promotion points process for sergeants and staff sergeants similarly assigns undue importance to APFT scores. For promotion points, APFT scores are worth almost half of the military training points. Points for APFT scores are comparable to the maximum points given for awards, and exceed the value for completion of the Basic Leader Course or the Advanced Leader Course, which are both mandatory professional military education courses. Finally, it has become routine for leaders to screen a Soldier’s APFT score before recommending promotion, education or future assignments.
As the over-emphasis on APFT scores begins with administrative processes for junior enlisted Soldiers, a “trickle up” impact exists, where Soldiers who reap the benefits of the system (i.e., those with high APFT scores) exacerbate the issues as they rise through the ranks. This is not to say that physical fitness standards should not be part of evaluation for promotion, selection for educational opportunities and consideration for future assignments. The Army needs to promote, select and assign those who are qualified and not promote, select, assign or retain those who are not qualified. However, performance on the APFT has become too incentivized, leading to a tendency to prioritize the “fit but dumb” over others in administrative processes. This incentivization occurs in the sense that good behavior (i.e., high scores on the APFT) is rewarded, while perceived bad behavior (i.e., lower but not failing scores on the APFT) is punished.
Because of this disproportionate focus on APFT scores, leaders often ignore other important leadership characteristics. Many serving in the military would rather have leaders, peers and subordinates who can achieve high APFT scores, look good in uniform, and conform to certain expectations than ones who are physically capable of doing their jobs and healthy from a physical/medical standpoint. Or, as suggested by the survey, excellent personnel leadership skills are thought by only 25 percent of the respondents to be the most important leadership trait; almost 60 percent believe that leadership skills are equally important as a high APFT score and job competence or that job competence and physical fitness are simply components of leadership skills. Many subordinates are likely to dismiss a leader if the leader does not meet ideal physical expectations.
Unfortunately, physical fitness in the Army has become more of an uncontrolled experiment where the exaggeration of specific traits (how high one can score on the APFT) results in the unintentional culling of the traits that are actually desired and important: actual physical fitness, leadership, competence, potential and intelligence. This misplaced focus on high APFT scores has accidently turned promotion, selection and assignment processes into something akin to a breeding program that selects primarily for high APFT scores instead of more important physical fitness, intelligence and leadership traits. This unintentional breeding program creates a systemic issue in which previous generations in the military are affecting the newer generations.
Although physical fitness has many direct and indirect benefits to leadership, it is a poor way of measuring leadership itself. Worse yet, because protecting the homeland, closing with and destroying the enemy, and winning the nation’s wars (the major functions of the military) are heavily reliant on Soldiers capable of performing tasks requiring high physical prowess, an indirect correlation has been applied to the major philosophy of the military — leadership.
Though the array of new Army physical fitness initiatives are positive developments, they are unlikely to break the false connection perceived between leadership and physical fitness.
Breaking this false linkage between fitness and leadership, or the “strong but dumb” mindset, is imperative. The NCO Corps can assist in this process by helping to dethrone high APFT scores from their dominate position in administrative processes; focusing physical readiness training on actual physical readiness versus the APFT; and rethinking the relative importance of physical fitness as compared to intellect, potential, duty performance and education level when conducting administrative processes for enlisted and more junior NCOs.
Maj. Jeff Jager is a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer with an area of concentration in Europe. He commissioned as an infantry officer from the U.S. Military Academy in 2000; commanded two infantry companies during “the surge” in Baghdad in 2007-2008; and was selected as a Foreign Area Officer in 2008. As an FAO, he served as the Assistant Army Attaché in Cyprus from 2012-2015 and has served as the Training and Doctrine Command Liaison Officer to Turkey since June 2015. He is also a certified Master Fitness Trainer.
Aaron Kennedy is a former sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as an intelligence analyst from 1994-2002, deploying twice to the Middle East with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He later served as the Intelligence Systems Instructor at the MAGTF Staff Training Program in Quantico, Virginia. After leaving service, he became interested in endurance running and the science of fitness.
The survey cited in this article ran from June 24, 2016, to July 24, 2016 on SurveyMonkey and collected 272 responses from across a defined population of 16,638,288 active-duty, former and retired servicemembers. Limiting the survey to those currently serving in the Army, 172 responses were received. As of July 2016, there were 473,844 Army active-duty, 345,679 in the Army National Guard, and 198,971 in the Army Reserve. This adds to a total of 1,018,494 Soldiers. With 172 responses and a studied population of 1,018,494, the margin of error for the survey is about 8 percent, with a confidence level of 95 percent.
It became very clear to the noncommissioned officers assembled during the first Noncommissioned Officer Solarium 2015 Outbrief session at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which key Army topic of the seven discussed was the most critical to Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. If physical fitness benchmarks continue on the current path where 40 percent of Soldiers are overweight and body fat standards are too lenient, it will pose a severe detriment to Army readiness, and the Army and nation will suffer for it, Dailey said.
The Sergeant Major of the Army urged about 80 participating noncommissioned officers May 1 during the event at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Combined Arms Center to take accountability for their physical fitness and set the example for their Soldiers.
“You don’t get good physical fitness unless you do physical fitness,” Dailey said. “[I say] good for you if you have the guilt for not doing [physical training]. Let that run on your brain all day long. I hope it eats you apart if you did not do physical fitness this morning. Hopefully that in turn will drive you to do it tomorrow.”
Call for excellence
Dailey, Command Sgt. Maj. David S. Davenport Sr., TRADOC command sergeant major; Command Sgt. Maj. David O. Turnbull, Combined Arms Center command sergeant major; and Sgt. Maj. Dennis A. Eger, Mission Command Center of Excellence sergeant major, heard from a focus group of NCOs who suggested that the Army needs a better tool to assess physical readiness training (PRT) instead of the “outdated” Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT).
“There are units and posts out there conducting different types of physical training such as CrossFit and P90X. … They have not bought into what the Army standard is,” said 1st Sgt. Jason M. Lambert, combat engineer 1st sergeant with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 6th Engineer Battalion.
Lambert was the speaker for the physical fitness group. For the Solarium, NCOs were divided into seven work groups. Each group was asked to present their recommendations to the Sergeant Major of the Army on the seven most problematic issues facing today’s Army. The other key topics were talent management, education, culture, training, vision/branding and practicing mission command.
“Our recommendation is to modify the APFT to be more realistic and have it revolve around PRT concepts,” Lambert said.
TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. David S. Davenport Sr. acknowledged that the APFT does not match the doctrine on physical fitness.
“Why is everybody doing P90X and Cross Fit? Because they’re training to max the PT test; it’s not about their unit mission,” Davenport said. “If you talk to [Soldiers] about Afghanistan, they think stamina is important. It’s not about how many push-ups you can do. We have got to figure out how we’re going to assess overall fitness. … Fitness is tied to everything we do in our Army.”
Priorities and the mission
Solarium discussions frequently crossed over into several key topics as the NCOs in focus groups presented their recommendations. First Sgt. Robert V. Craft Jr., mechanical maintenance 1st sergeant with 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, discussed consequences for Soldiers who fail the APFT.
“My group came to a consensus that we have begun to accept substandard performance in order to make numbers for mission,” Craft said. “[If Soldiers are being retained] in order to be able to accomplish our missions, it basically leads the average Soldier to believe that PT isn’t important and shape isn’t important. The only thing that matters is the mission.
“At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility as NCOs, bottom line, but the problem arises when we as NCOs do our part [to begin the separation of a Soldier], [and then a commander says] to retain that Soldier and fix it,” Craft said. “I can’t fix a Soldier if the Soldier has quit. I can do more with less if I didn’t have to worry about that bottom 10 percent.”
Noncommissioned officers in the group that focused on talent management noted that the Army needs to improve how select personnel are identified for broadening assignments, such as recruiters and drill sergeants.
“We’ve recently been embarrassed in the media by recruiters having improper relations with recruits; also a sexual assault response coordinator who embarrassed his organization by his actions in Texas,” said Master Sgt. Danny Ibarra, a secretary of general staff for 21st Theater Sustainment Command Operations and Support. “We need to screen [for those positions] a little bit better. There currently isn’t a standardized selection process, and the command sergeant major’s involvement is key.
“Having the command sergeant major vet and interview these personnel could help stop putting these people in the wrong assignments,” Ibarra and his group said.
Dailey said talent management in the Army is under review and that changes to the process are being considered.
“I think that we have to put talent management in the hands of every leader throughout every organization,” the sergeant major of the Army said. “It was once described to me as not about managing the top 10 percent [of Soldiers]. That’s real easy. The challenge is what do you do with the bottom 40 [percent of Soldiers].
“Everybody’s fighting for that quality individual, and there’s not enough [of them] to go around,” he said.
NCOs also discussed the successes and failures of Army branding campaigns and whether or not they identified personally with any of them. NCOs in the focus group on branding said the current campaign, “Army Strong,” does not resonate with them.
“We feel that we need something that speaks more as far as who we are, what we are and why we do it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Cornelius Cowart, operations NCO for 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. “We need something that’s a little more timeless. For instance, a lot of us in here can relate, even 20 years later, to ‘Be All You Can Be.’ It still speaks to our veterans, active-duty Soldiers and even some of our younger Soldiers.”
The sergeant major of the Army agreed with Cowart and his group about the timeless appeal of “Be All You Can Be”. However, Dailey urged NCOs to consider the message they convey to the public as walking “billboards” for the Army.
“Every Soldier is a billboard; we’re all billboards, and there actually are enough of us to make a difference nationally,” he said. “You can control what your own billboard says. It’s a big old billboard, and it’s going to get more attention than the one that’s on the side of the road.”
Dailey spoke of the new transition assistance program called Soldier For Life, which prepares service members for post-Army life by ensuring that he or she has all of the necessary tools, opportunities and counseling.
“Here is our problem as I see it ─ the Marine Corps is very good at what they do,” Dailey said. “You can chapter out of the Marine Corps, and you are a Marine for life. A Soldier can retire out of the Army, get paid benefits for the rest of his life and still talk bad about the Army.”
Dailey thanked the NCOs for their work during the Solarium and said the discussions generated will have a profound impact on what he will advise the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Secretary of the Army. Dailey said the Solarium was not just an exercise, but an event that must be done on a regular basis.
“We [in senior leadership] sometimes lose touch; this is our way of getting back in touch with reality,” he said. “You NCOs are the representation of just that. This is a reality of what is going on across our Army … because you are at the heart of where organizational leadership begins.”
After a Monday full of administrative details, essay writing and being introduced to each other and the week’s schedule, the 28 competitors of the 2014 U.S. Army Best Warrior Competition at Fort Lee, Va., were eager Tuesday to begin what is perhaps the most physically challenging day of competition. Roused hours before sunrise from their cots at their makeshift forward operating base on Fort Lee’s range complex, the competitors rode in the back of trucks to the day’s first event, the Army Physical Fitness Test. But it would be the last time they’d travel on wheels that day.
“It started out great this morning,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Terry E. Parham Sr., the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee. “The weather was perfect for an APFT — not too cold, not too hot — and the Soldiers did very well. But for the rest of the day, to every event these Soldiers go, they have to march from Point A to Point B. By the time the day is over, they’ll have between 9 and 12 miles under their belts. And they have their 35-pound rucks with their gear on their backs.”
Competitors wended their way to eight locations along a circuitous route through Fort Lee’s ranges. They included lanes pertaining to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear skills; M-9 pistol and M-203 grenade launcher marksmanship; close-quarters marksmanship; a 45-question multiple-choice exam; medical evaluation and evacuation skills; and reacting to man-to-man contact. At each stop was a real-world scenario competitors would have to apply all their knowledge, training and experience in order to successfully complete.
“We give them the mission, but that’s about it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Naira Frazier, NCO in charge of the CBRN lane. “We don’t tell them anything, because they’re already supposed to know. These are Skill Level 1 and 2 tasks.”
Her lane, for example, consisted of an elaborate scenario that, if done to standard, would normally take competitors between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, depending on whether they were vying for the title of NCO of the Year or Soldier of the Year.
“The scenario is they are at a chemical storage facility,” Frazier said. “Because they are in a chemical environment, they have to be very cautious and take their time.”
They also were expected to know the differences among the various levels of mission-oriented protective posture gear and when each is necessary, she explained. The highest — MOPP Level 4 — requires a gas mask and head-to-toe suit that competitors found stifling.
“Being in MOPP Level 4 gear and pouring out sweat wasn’t the most fun I’ve had here,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Hester, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command NCO of the Year. “Part of it was properly decontaminating and testing the air — you had to go by the book. At one point, I had to wait 10 minutes, and they said, ‘Here’s your stopwatch.’ So I sat there for 10 minutes in all that hot gear. There was no cutting corners.”
Part of the scenario involved evaluating, treating, evacuating and decontaminating a casualty found inside of the CBRN chamber, which meant competitors had to do lots of heavy lifting in the restrictive protective gear.
“I never like having to put that mask on and that suit,” said Staff Sgt. Victor Munoz, the U.S. Army Medical Command NCO of the Year. “You just start to sweat, and it’s so hot. Then you have to drag that [stretcher], and it’s not like you can try to catch your breath, because your breathing is restricted. It was just uncomfortable.”
But, Frazier explained, the lane showed the importance of knowing basic CBRN-related skills that every Soldier should know.
“As you can see, CBRN is no joke,” she said coughing after exiting the chamber, which was filled with CS gas. “It’s not something where you can come and automatically know how to do it.”
At the close-quarters marksmanship lane, competitors were tested on how to apply skills learned over 13 years of wartime deployments, but in an environment that isn’t a war zone.
“The scenario here is they’ve come to help this village after an earthquake has happened,” said Staff Sgt. James Shuster, the lane’s NCOIC, while casually tossing a bang-producing noisemaker to contribute to the lane’s ambience. “That’s to simulate a gas main explosion. … There’s a team on-site already, and the competitors are coming in to assist with security, because there are pockets of hostile personnel in the area.”
“Once they go through the door, they’ll be presented with hostile and non-hostile targets,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Morris, the NCOIC of the cell organizing the entire competition. “So they’ll have to determine on their own, based on their rules of engagement, if they’re able to shoot or not shoot, and who to shoot and who not to shoot. That right there is unique, because it’s not a combat, wartime situation, yet they’re presented with hostile intent. Seeing how they react to that, I think, will be interesting.”
The lane also features the day’s most memorable obstacle, Morris said.
“We have something we call the ‘Fun Box,’” he said. “Basically its the size of a room, but it’s a maze they’ll have to crawl through and around with all their gear, simulating what it might be like to move through a collapsed building. That right there is going to test their resilience, because they’re going to be hot and sweaty, carrying all this gear, and they’ve already done a [physical training] test and all these other events. Now they’re having to crawl through a box.”
“It’s 34 inches [tall and wide] throughout the entire thing,” Shuster said. “It starts out on the far side. They have to come under, then there’s a box they have to go over and then down. They’ll come around, then they have to go up two pretty big stairs, they’ll come across the top, then through the front, and down and out.”
The inventive obstacle made a definite impact on competitors, said Spc. Keegan Carlson, the U.S. Army Reserve Soldier of the Year.
“It looks from the outside like a small building with a small entry hole,” he said. “Then you get in there, and I thought there would be two corners maybe. Next thing I know, I’m going around five or six corners, going up inclines, crawling up, crawling down.”
“I didn’t fit in the thing,” Munoz said laughing. “It was rough. There were points in there when I started to re-evaluate my life: ‘What am I doing in here!?’”
Competitors also had to apply their Army Combatives skills to a real-world scenario at the react to man-to-man contact lane. There, they came upon a near riot in progress, explained Staff Sgt. Korento Leverette, NCOIC of the lane.
“We have two families in this village who are fighting over who is the rightful owner of this farmland,” Leverette said as dozens of role-players began chanting slogans and brandishing farming tools. “As the competitor comes in, they’ll be told that their assistance is required to help calm the situation using non-lethal force. Then, an aggressor will come up with the village elder, and in the course of their conversation, the aggressor — who is actually Army Combatives Level 2-certified — will become more aggressive, at which time the competitor will have to take control of the situation.”
“It has a combatives element to it, but it’s separate from combatives,” Morris said. “There’s a Warrior Task and Battle Drill — react to man-to-man contact — and it’s the SMA’s intent to separate the Battle Drill and the idea of training the skill of combatives.”
“The sergeant major of the Army didn’t want a combatives match,” Leverette said. “He wanted a real-world scenario, something you might encounter, where you would use the skills you’d learn in Army Combatives.”
Competitors said they appreciated the applied approach.
“We train as we fight, so I kind of came in with that mindset, that this was going to be a real scenario,” Hester said. “I was very tired. It felt like I had been walking for a year. But to get to use my combatives training in a safe environment, to test my skills, that was really good. I had to dig deep, but when it was over, I felt the adrenaline pumping.”
Competitors were expected to get a decent night’s sleep before splitting up and engaging in two very different events Wednesday: The NCO of the Year competitors will make their appearances before a board presided by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, while the Soldier of the Year competitors will face the mystery events. On Thursday, the two groups will switch, and the Soldier of the Year competitors will face the board. Later that night, the winners will be announced at an awards dinner at Fort Lee and live on the Internet.
Though it was the eve of him being scrutinized by the seniormost sergeants major in the Army, Wednesday’s board appearance didn’t faze Munoz.
“You never get used to walking into a room and standing before the sergeant major of the Army,” he said. “And I don’t think you can ever be completely ready. Because you’re being questioned on everything, and it’s impossible to know it all, it all comes down to how you handle yourself in there. But I’ll probably do some cramming tonight.”
The members of the Physical Readiness Division are familiar with the criticism that the exercises outlined in FM 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, look “soft” and that average Army Physical Fitness Test scores have fallen in some places where PRT has been implemented.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well our average APFT scores have gone down since we’ve been doing PRT.’ I say, ‘Well, how are you scoring it?’” said Maj. David Feltwell, PRD’s physical therapist and medical liaison.
In one of the classes he teaches for the Master Fitness Trainer Course, he outlines a scenario in which 100 Soldiers arrive at a unit and 100 Soldiers take the APFT and score an average of 180.
“Now, let’s suppose you start out with 100, and at the end of the same period of time using [another] physical training program, 50 Soldiers take it, and they all score 300. What’s the average score for your unit? That (second) unit gets the APFT banner, but what you did was something called survivor bias — you lied,” he said. “You have to account for everyone who didn’t make it, and we don’t do that very well. A lot of people PCS or ETS or retire. It’s very hard to track and give an honest APFT average. Whereas in Basic Combat Training, you’re here for 10 weeks, so we know the averages. It’s really a true representation of that unit’s ability to get people to be able to complete the mission. In the Army setting, to me, it’s getting people into combat.”
In an earlier iteration, the new physical readiness system was known as Victory Fitness. It was tested on basic trainees because the environment could be controlled better and the results would be more valid. One battalion that had been trained on that precursor to PRT was taught the program for six months and then took on a group of trainees. Another battalion that hadn’t received that training used the Army’s legacy physical fitness program on another group of trainees.
“After 10 weeks, a statistic was looked at called cumulative survival, which measures how many people survived — not were alive but made it through to graduation,” Feltwell said. “Because the battalions had been matched up, to the extent that that’s possible, for everything except the physical training — gender, socioeconomic background, injury history, whatever you can to the extent that you can match them up — then the difference in cumulative survival at the end can be attributed to a very high degree to the physical training program. In the battalion that received the Victory Fitness Program — which became Standardized Physical Training, which became Physical Readiness Training — about 78 percent of the Soldiers made it through. You might think, ‘Wow, that’s not very good.’ But in the [other] nonstandardized group it was 68 percent.”
And the APFT data were similarly impressive, he said.
“With the APFT, if you look at the scores, for instance, 75 percent of the males who were in that Victory Fitness study scored over 60 points, when the standard was 50 points in Basic Combat Training. The APFT is taken care of; it’s no longer a significant emotional event.”
Feltwell himself conducted an informal study with Soldiers from a headquarters company at Fort Jackson.
Some worked night shifts or were injured, so they weren’t able to participate in the program and became a control group. Feltwell and his team examined the Soldiers’ scores in the fall, and in January of that cycle they conducted PRT, with the book, but without input from PRD. When they took their APFT in the spring, average scores for those who used PRT increased 38 points, Feltwell said. The average situp score was 91. Only one person failed, and she had just come off a pregnancy profile, Feltwell said. The group that couldn’t participate in the PRT program saw their average score rise, too, but only 17 points.
“You can’t get injury data out of [that study], but the performance data is amazing,” Feltwell said. “If you look at it statistically, we call that a very, very significant difference. And we’re careful how we use the ‘verys.’ We had very few people, but the increase in scores was so large that it gave us a large amount of power to say that there was a difference caused by that intervention. And that’s what, I think, the Army wants: to have something that increases your physical fitness and your readiness for combat. Well, that’s what PRT does.”
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Kane, a team leader for the MFTC’s mobile training teams, says if PRT seems easy, it’s probably because you’re not doing it properly.
“I’m very hard on the precision aspect of it, because all that precision, it builds discipline,” he said. “So when people are standing at the position of attention improperly, it bothers me, because if they’re going to do it improperly here, they’re going to do it improperly at their unit, and they’re going to teach people improperly. So if we can’t get the smaller bits of discipline down here, and they teach it every morning, then it just bleeds over to the Army. It’s a bad thing.
“Precision is key because it reduces injuries as well. People know the exercises because they’ve probably seen them on YouTube or whatever. But to do them precisely as prescribed makes a big difference. You’ll have people say, ‘Whoa, I never did it like that before and now, I can feel it in a different manner,’ because targeting muscles at a different angle is a world apart.”
Stephen Van Camp, the PRD’s deputy director, agreed — actually doing the exercises is believing.
“At face value, you look at the PRT book, you look at the exercises, you think, ‘Well, that doesn’t look very hard. You’re only doing five repetitions of each exercise to start out with. You’re only doing this. You’re only doing that,’” he said. “Well, if you do it precisely and you progress the way the program says to the harder things and you have that integration of Soldier skills into what you’re doing, it’s a very difficult program. But people say, ‘Well how does this help me for the PT test?’ Well, if you’re getting stronger and you’re doing a lot of speed work, that’s going to transfer over very well and the PT test takes care of itself.
“Everybody looks at: ‘What am I accountable for? I’m accountable for pushups, situps and running twice a year,’” Van Camp said. “OK, our studies show that we’re going to have fewer injuries and those test scores are going to be as good or go up with this kind of training.
“We still have timed sets of pushups. When I did the total count in the [Initial Entry Training] environment of what PRT offers in pushup-type activities — trunk-flexion-type activities — and for the situp and speed running, it far outweighed what we had done in traditional PT in the past,” he said. “So the PT scores are not going to suffer. … When we have a student for four weeks, who actually lives the PRT, they become somewhat of a converted zealot.”
Kane said, “I think the biggest thing for NCOs to remember is to just follow the principles of precision, progression and integration, and just to take the slow ramp — that moderate ramp — to success. Everything’s in the manual; it’s so user-friendly. And don’t try to get crazy. My theory has always been since I worked here that until I can do 10 repetitions of Climbing Drill 2 to standard without a spot, then I don’t have any business doing anything else.”