Best Defense

A few good men, women… anybody? Finding qualified recruits becoming more difficult for the military’s combat forces

Though the armed forces adapt their physical training programs to account for emerging environmental factors influencing troops' fitness, there is only so much they can do with the raw material.

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By Jim Gourley
Best Defense office of physical training

Though the armed forces adapt their physical training programs to account for emerging environmental factors influencing troops’ fitness, there is only so much they can do with the raw material.

A fitness program is meant to improve overall physical ability from an initial state. The underlying character invokes two constraints. The first is that the program has to set its “ground floor” at a level that new participants can get started without injuring themselves. The second is that the participants’ initial state also defines the amount of time it will take them to achieve the desired improvements. As the leadership at the Army’s Physical Fitness School is discovering, the ground floor for modern recruits is looking a lot more like a basement. Instead of the training programs catalyzing adaptations among recruits, it’s the recruits forcing the training programs to adapt. In order to accommodate all new service members, the elevator has to reach farther down and must travel slower to get to the top. Confounding this dynamic is that the basic training timeline has not adapted to accommodate the longer process. Improved programs can make better use of the time and material at hand, but they can’t work miracles. As studies have shown, the result is that “qualified service members” aren’t as qualified as they used to be.

The result is that injury rates in theater and garrison have skyrocketed with alarming consequences. According to a 2013 article by Dr. Bradley Nindl, science advisor for the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health, only 85 percent of active duty and 70 percent of Reserve/Guard personnel were able to deploy. Musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) make up 45 percent of medical not ready classifications among military personnel. “We have about 190,000 service members being treated for mental trauma or injury. We have 800,000 receiving treatment for MSIs. Back when General Schoomaker was Army Surgeon General, the Army had the equivalent of 68,000 soldiers on limited duty. That equals $6 billion in salary for people who can’t deploy. We’ve made improvements since, but this is still a very big problem.”

Even for deployable service members, noncombat musculoskeletal injuries create an extraordinary burden on the medical system in theater. A study of disease and non-battle injuries in the Middle East theater of operations came back with the following revelations:

More than 34 percent of deployed service members sustained a noncombat injury, and more than half were musculoskeletal.

—42 percent of all cases reporting musculoskeletal injuries exhibited reduced job performance.

—Overuse injuries made up approximately 14 percent of non-battle injuries requiring MEDEVAC.

—Between 25-50 percent of ambulatory visits for non-battle injuries were for orthopedic pain or injury.

—Sports, physical training, and heavy lifting together made up between 24-42 percent of musculoskeletal injuries.

In sum, a substantial population of our armed forces are either unable to deploy, or once deployed sustain musculoskeletal conditions that either diminish their combat effectiveness or remove them from theater entirely. What is even more troubling is that these rates persist regardless of the mission, because they are not directly related to combat activities. Similar rates of injury were found during humanitarian relief operations. No matter what mission the military is called upon to perform, it can expect similar losses in personnel strength. According to Nindl, these losses constitute “a need for a strategic paradigm shift in the military’s approach to physical readiness.”

That new strategy will necessarily have to be more discriminatory in allocating resources. Matching people to military specialties according to physical abilities and demands would prevent injuries due to lack of preparedness. However, if the training programs have not been up to the task of getting people ready for duty, then the current battery of physical fitness tests in each service are poorly designed to assess that readiness. An infantryman, an artilleryman and a paralegal perform unique jobs, but they take the same generic PFT. Performance on the test does not translate to performance in the job environment. The military is developing a better means of assessment.

The Army and Marine Corps have taken on the problem of evaluating a recruit’s physical aptitude under an odd and unexpected banner. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded the ‘Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment’ rule in 2013, signaling women’s eventual eligibility for duty in infantry and armor units. Due to concerns about physical differences between women and men, both the Army and USMC initiated studies to determine how women would be tested. Testing would have to be gender neutral and specific to the duties of the combat role in question. The Marines’ investigative effort conformed to four “lines of action” as described by Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos. The intent is to put women in training and evaluate their performance experientially. Amos and others since have expressed that the USMC will not compromise their physical standards at all, implying a belief that the current fitness standards are sufficient. For women applying for combat roles, that standard is to complete the Initial Strength Test at the male standard, scoring two pull-ups, 44 crunches, and a 1.5-mile run in less than 13:30. Notably, the USMC has a Combat Fitness Test in addition to its PFT, which is more reflective of battlefield requirements. The Army program, titled Soldier 2020 (.pdf), seeks to analyze job-specific patterns of physical activity in seven different military occupational specialties and develop aptitude tests for each one.

Jack Myers, lead planner for the Soldier 2020 program, explains that the ultimate goal is to establish physical tests for potential recruits prior to basic training. “Our smallest infantry recruit in 2012 was less than five feet tall and weighed a hundred pounds. Was that person really qualified for the infantry? He could pass the PFT, but what about the other associated tasks with his mission? Our tests right now only assess soldiers after they’re in their MOS. So we wanted a series of tests that will be predictive according to standards. We don’t know yet exactly where these tests will be administered, either at the recruiting station or the MEPS depot. But these will be used to assess aptitude before a recruit chooses their MOS. I like to think of it as a ‘physical ASVAB.'”

Soldier 2020’s research thus far has identified 31 physical tasks that will be tested. Seven are common to all occupations of interest. The infantry has an additional eight specific tasks, armor four, artillery six and combat engineers five. Interestingly, artillery gunners were the only MOS found not to require testing for foot marching capability, though it is a component of their warrior task and battle drills and they have been called upon to walk their share of patrols in our most recent wars. Still, Myers is confident that the Army “knows what soldiers have to do,” and their test criteria will accurately reflect those requirements. Myers says that extending the research of Soldier 2020 to the physical requirements and tests of other specialties could take decades. The Marines have already opened eleven combat support jobs — mostly related to heavy equipment maintenance– to women. Again, the same standards apply as to every other specialty in the Marines.

Soldier 2020’s Research Health Exercise Scientist Marilyn Sharp has been in charge of developing the tests to ensure their adherence to appropriate physical training guidelines while also meeting Army requirements. One of the tests for tank operators is especially demonstrative of the thought that’s gone into the program. “We want to make sure that a recruit can actually lift a shell and load it into the main gun of the tank. However, a great deal of that task requires technical skill, so we had to “dumb down” the test so to speak in order to assess the physical ability to load the shell within a confined space without actually requiring the person to get into a tank.” Working with the NSCA and ACSM, Sharp has developed a test that takes fewer than four attempts to master the movement pattern, thus eliminating the skill bias. There is only one absolute standard for each of the tests, meaning that not only are they gender-neutral, but they also give no special consideration to age. A 30-year-old enlistee seeking a combat job will have to meet the same standard as his or her 18-year-old counterpart.

Whether that 18-year-old can make the cut is another matter. From 1940-1945, approximately 30 percent of Americans examined for the draft were disqualified. Today the percentage of unqualified youth has doubled. Only 36 percent of high school aged males and 17 percent of females are physically active for 60 minutes each day, and 15 percent reported having no physical activity at all. On average, they spend seven and a half hours each day in front of a television or computer screen. Only six states require physical education in grades K-12. Physical education is always the first subject to go onto the chopping block when school budgets tighten, and just this week Governors in five states proposed further cuts to their education programs. The military is getting more scientific in how it chooses qualified personnel from the available population, but the direction of physical education programs in the U.S. is cause to worry just how much of the population will be available in the future. The military cannot create combat-ready personnel in a vacuum, and thus far national leadership has failed to create a program that fosters a healthier civilian population for military service. Regardless of how refined their tests are, in the coming decades the Marines and the Army may be reduced to picking the best of a bad lot.

Jim Gourley is a former military intelligence officer. He now works as an author and journalist covering military affairs and sports science. His newest book, about ultra-endurance triathlon, is in stores now. Follow him on Twitter: @jim_gourley.

Richard Spencer Papers/Flickr

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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