Fitness focus is on keeping you alive, not downsizing

  • Published
  • By Capt. Darrick B. Lee
  • Chief, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
It's no secret the Air Force has placed a renewed emphasis on physical training lately. Although we've always had a PT program, the recent revisions are the most significant we've seen in the past few years.

Likewise, it's no secret that many Airmen are concerned about keeping up with the revised fitness standards. With the 1.5-mile run now accounting for potentially 60 percent of an Airman's total test score, and with the understanding that a failure in any one area means total test failure, these are valid concerns.

Unrelated, and also not a secret, is the Air Force's ongoing effort to reduce the total number of Airmen force-wide. According to the Air Force Personnel Center, the force has more people than authorized by Congress. Recent programs, including force shaping and the implementation of high-tenure separations, are aimed at meeting manpower goals.

On the surface, some skeptics might view our renewed focus on fitness as a subtle attempt to help with the manpower reduction efforts. While I don't agree with this view, it is true the current program considers two consecutive PT test failures as potential grounds for discharge.

I think the Airmen who believe this need to spend some time talking with those who have recently returned from a joint expeditionary deployment. If they do, they'll learn what JET Airmen already know:

If you are not physically fit, there is a real chance you may die while deployed.

The Air Force's increased focus on physical fitness is directly related to the increased number of kinetic-combat roles Airmen are being tasked to perform. The force wants to do all it can to ensure you have the tools you need to work, and survive, while in a combat zone. Aside from your weapon and a sound mind, a fit body is probably the best tool you can have downrange.

Some might think to themselves: "I'm not going to risk pushing myself now. Besides, if I have to deploy, they'll whip me into shape during Combat Skills Training, anyway."

The pre-deployment training we receive helps, but it's unrealistic to believe the challenge of getting in shape for combat begins at CST. The Air Force is trying to create a culture that is focused on being in shape year-round, not just when it's time for a PT test or time to deploy. The intent is to keep you alive, not to kick out Airmen or ensure those who remain are "checking the box."

The 35th Fighter Wing's senior enlisted leader, Chief Master Sgt. Russell Hastings, agrees. He recently expressed a desire to de-emphasize the technical aspects of the new program, and to put focus more on fitness in general.

"Clearly, there's a lot of emotion about the program," said Chief Hastings. "But mission readiness is the reason we're doing this. We've got to be able to accomplish the mission. We do need to meet these new standards, but rather than worrying about going on a crash diet to lose an inch, doing the perfect push-up or bringing a calculator to your PT test so you can tally scores mid-run, we need to change our daily mindset to include being fit every day."

I learned the same lesson, the hard way, during a recent deployment.

In 2009, I served as a member of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. Our team often traveled to remote villages to help build schools, roads, etc. Sometimes, we traveled in vehicles, but when the terrain was too rough, we had to travel on foot.

This was not an easy task based on distance, weather and terrain alone. Add to this the requirement to carry "full battle rattle" (combat gear), and a foot patrol could quickly turn into a real physical fitness test ... one I didn't want to fail while outside the wire.

If you ever find yourself in the same predicament -- and, if history is any indication, you will -- it's critical your body is able to carry the extra weight. There can be a LOT of weight to carry:

· Body armor, including protective vest and helmet
· Several magazines full of ammunition
· Weapons (JET Airmen often carry more than one)
· Rations
· Water

Those are just the standard items. To accomplish the mission, Airmen are often required to carry even more. My load included all of the above, and a digital single-lens-reflex camera and a wearable video camera, plus accessories. I often carried 70 pounds or more, on a regular basis.

On several occasions during my deployment, fitness was a factor in saving me from being injured or even killed. My most vivid memory is of our PRT taking incoming fire from insurgents while we were on foot, and me frantically running to get to the safety of our Mine-Resistant-Ambush-Protected vehicles. A medic was waiting inside the vehicle I was running to. She helped me by quickly opening the heavy MRAP door so I could scramble inside. MRAP doors are opened automatically, but they can sometimes be slow and hard to open. To open them quickly takes extra muscle.

I made it to safety that day, but I know more than a few Airmen who may not have been able to do the same.

Now, whenever I'm running, with my lungs out of breath and my sides hurting, I think to myself, "What if I couldn't run fast enough on that day?"

Whenever I'm doing push-ups, fighting to keep my knees off the ground while hoping my arms can support my own weight, I think: "What if the medic wasn't strong enough to push open that MRAP door to let me in?"

I could have died that day.

I'm not a fitness freak. The truth is that I don't enjoy running. Sit-ups always hurt my back, and push-ups bring back bad memories from boot camp.

But I've promised myself that going into my next deployment, I won't have to wonder "what if," because I'll feel confident knowing the answer before I go.

I ask you to do the same. Abandon any conspiracy theories about why we're re-focusing on fitness, and quit bringing your iPhone to the PT test loaded with the latest fitness score calculator application. (That's a true story; I've seen it.)

Instead, embrace the new standards. If you don't do it to accomplish the mission, embrace the new standards for a more personal reason: You may very well die if you don't.