Best Defense

How to reorganize U.S. military PT

Without question, a significant amount of research indicates that our military and civilian populations are fatter and more sedentary than ever.


By Donald Maye
Best Defense guest respondent

Without question, a significant amount of research indicates that our military and civilian populations are fatter and more sedentary than ever. Consequently, our service members are more likely to face injury in training and be less effective moving in combat. Unfortunately, there is doubt that our Department of Defense (DOD) leadership is educated in the realm of human performance optimization and how it relates to current DOD policy. Asking them better questions would be a good start in influencing meaningful change.

Why has change taken so long? The challenge of improving the physical readiness of the military is much more complicated than the type of training and testing service members perform. Debate in public forums and in the Pentagon has also included determining when and how women will serve in combat roles in the military. These issues cannot be addressed independently because the broadness of DOD-level policy compounds the inertia leaders face in making significant changes in realm of human performance optimization.

Are some women physically capable of serving in a combat role? Yes, absolutely– just as some men are not. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno also answers with a “yes”. How can he not? Over a decade of combat, legal pressure, and heroics like those of SGT Leigh Hester make his stance unsurprising. If you remain in doubt, review how SGT Hester personally killed combatants while clearing an enemy trench line in Iraq. Instead of stating the obvious, we should ask our leaders more challenging questions, such as: How do you determine which women and men are best suited for combat roles?

Does DOD policy support our services in determining which men and women are best suited for combat roles? Looking into the layers of current DOD policy, you will discover significant defects: DOD Directive 1308.1 and DOD Instruction 1308.3 only stipulate a broad requirement to measure body fat composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardio-respiratory endurance in service members. The guidance is specific in defining these terms in accordance with established exercise science literature. What is less specific, however, is how and in what manner these physical attributes are to be assessed. More concerning is that there is no requirement to establish a criterion standard for each service – one based on measurable and validated outcomes. (The Army has an ongoing study to evaluate criterion standards for its service members).

What impact does current DOD guidance have on the services? An example of how this guidance leads to service-level policy is seen in the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of timed push-ups and sit-ups, and a 2-mile run. Army policy dictates that this test be used by commanders to measure soldier fitness and determine unit and individual physical training needs. The test is required, by Army policy, to be administered to soldiers twice a year. The results then play a large role in a soldier’s career progression (ability to attend professional schooling, promotions, and evaluations). In fact, the APFT is the very first “test” a soldier takes when beginning Basic Combat Training. The test’s most significant design flaw is that it fails to even to satisfy DOD guidance: It does not assess muscular strength as defined by the DOD and established exercise science literature.

Is the Army Physical Fitness Test an appropriate measurement of soldier readiness? Given the test’s impact on careers, one would expect the APFT to be an accurate assessment of a soldier’s physical readiness. However, as many combat veterans already know, push-ups, sit-ups, and a 2-mile run do not cut it. In addition to not measuring muscular strength, the APFT has never been validated to measure a soldier’s performance in their job function. What I find most disturbing is that the test has stood unchallenged by the ACLU for 30+ years while countless soldiers’ careers are stymied or terminated based upon the results. No wonder women cannot officially serve in combat roles — none of the services have yet defined what is required to physically perform the job — or any job for that matter. In the services’ defense, however, DOD policy does not adequately define the requirement anyway.

To begin a transformation, the DOD must confront the decreasing physical preparedness of our military service members and civilian candidate pool by changing the archaic and outdated policies in the realm of human performance. The DOD should then enforce a standardized physical training and testing program across all the services. And, instead of questioning whether or not women can serve in combat, our leaders should focus on how they will change the culture of DOD and American society in order to best train our daughters and sons for the physical demands of fighting the Nation’s wars. At the present time, each of the services are happily rearranging deck chairs while ignoring the looming icebergs.

Don Maye is a former Army Field Artillery officer. He served as the operations officer of the United States Army Physical Fitness School from 2010 to 2013. 

SSgt David Carbajal/U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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