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Soldiers take tough stance on physical fitness test failures

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 05, 2015) -- Soldiers at the first-ever NCO Solarium said they felt the Army has gone soft on those who have failed their Army Physical Fitness Tests, or APFT, too many times - and called for more discipline in enforcing standards.

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Ruiz, Headquarters Services Company, U.S. Army North, said allowing Soldiers, who have repeatedly failed their APFT to stay in the Army is inconsistent with the idea that physical fitness is important.

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"When Soldiers end up being retained, we feel it is a detriment to the unit and other units, who see that Soldier being retained," Ruiz said. "One of our recommendations is to remove the commander's ability to decline a separation packet for APFT failures."

Ruiz served as the spokesperson for the physical fitness group during the 2015 NCO Solarium on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. During the Solarium, about 80 NCOs, from throughout the Army, were tasked to come up with solutions to problems involving education, Army culture, training, mission command, physical fitness, and Army vision and branding. Those Soldiers were then asked to brief the sergeant major of the Army on their findings.

1st Sgt. Robert V. Craft Jr., 1-16 Infantry, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was also part of the physical fitness group. He speculated that the Army was accepting poor performers on the physical fitness test as a way to retain manpower numbers - something he felt was a bad idea.

"Over the last decade or so ... we have begun to accept substandard performance in order to make numbers for missions," he said. "By retaining those Soldiers, it basically leads to a consensus ... that PT [physical training] isn't important, that being in shape isn't important."

The same rigorous accountability that is applied to those within the Army Body Composition Program, ought to also be applied to those who fail the Army APFT, Craft said. AFPT failures could force a separation after a second time, or after a Soldier has failed within a certain number of years, for instance.

There should also be stricter Army physical fitness standards for those in leader positions, such as platoon sergeant, first sergeant or commander, Craft said. There should be stricter standards for those going off to any of the Army's professional military education, or PME, schools. "Then we are getting the best to go to school," he said.

Craft said his time as a first sergeant is limited - and often heavily managed. He said he ends up spending an inordinate amount of time working with Soldiers, who have failed too many times to meet Army standards. Above his head, he said, commanders continue to file the paperwork and make the exceptions to keep those Soldiers in the unit - something he said is not good for the Army.

"I can't fix a Soldier if the Soldier has quit," Craft said. "If the Soldier no longer has the desire, then get rid of him. I can do more with less [Soldiers], if I no longer have to worry about the bottom 10 percent."

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey told those NCOs at the Solarium to not refrain from sending less-than-stellar PT performers to Army PME schools. He said at an Army PME school, a Soldier cannot hide from the repercussions of failing to meet standards.

"Send them to school," he said. "We'll take care of them. There should no longer be the idea that if they no longer make PT, we'll hold them back. Send them. They go to school. We'll grade them. We'll help you take care of those people. Policy is going to drive that. When you fail, when you get that referred report in your file, you're going to be eligible for QMP [Qualitative Management Program] - as you should."

The QMP is a program that deals with substandard performing Soldiers, and can remove them from service.

Dailey said Soldiers must meet the standards of being a Soldier the entire time they are in the Army, and there is no reprieve from the standards.

"There is no pause button on being a Soldier," he said. "So nowhere in the regulations does it say two or three times you are allowed to be fat. It says you have to be skinny all the time. You should be graded from the time you enter the Army until the time you leave. Your peers are graded the same way. Don't hold them back from school anymore. Send them. We can help with that."

Sgt. 1st Class Erin L. Hicks, U.S. Army Dental Activity, Fort Carson, Colorado, said her group was calling for a "supreme authority" on installations when it comes to things like nutrition and physical fitness. Right now, she said, there is no such central authority, and the network of individuals who provide that information and guidance is "fragmented."

She pointed out that 68M Soldiers, nutritional specialists, are serving as cooks in military dining facilities. She said that flies in the face of the modern understanding of a nutritional specialist, which is somebody who can provide counseling and education regarding nutrition.

She also said the master fitness trainer course is unit-funded, coming out of discretionary funds. With fiscal constraints, she said, "not all commanders will be able to send NCOs to that critical course, bring them back and use them in their brigade, battalion, etc."

With skills like fitness training and nutritional expertise dispersed, and not guaranteed, she suggested the Army create a new position in the Army, an enlisted expert on fitness, sleep and nutrition, that can be the central go-to Soldier for what the Army is calling its Performance Triad.

"Why can't we bring all that together, like I would as a civilian and seek a personal trainer, who will provide me with nutrition education, physical training, recovery training," she asked. "Why can't we make that into an MOS [military occupational specialty], bring it all together and put it at brigade level?"

She said such a position would not eliminate the need for Army master fitness trainers, but would instead serve as the lead for that program.

Hicks suggested the 68M be transitioned from MFT/nutritionist to be the supreme authority on installations about fitness, nutrition and sleep. She said creation of such a position, which is Army-funded, not unit-funded, will be a "constant reminder that we take total Soldier fitness seriously and that we are going to make it a priority."

Ruiz also said that his physical fitness group wanted to see the Army's APFT more aligned, doctrinally with Army Physical Readiness Training, which is focused on preparing Soldiers physically for specific Soldier mission tasks. He said the AFPT does not effectively evaluate what is being done in PRT. He also said that many units are not actually doing PRT, but are doing other forms of physical fitness.

Dailey told NCOs that a lot of Army units are not putting the necessary emphasis on physical training that is needed to keep the Army ready. He said today that 40 percent of Soldiers are overweight, and that there are as many as 45,000 Soldiers, who are not deployable today.

"Most of those [are] associated with lower-extremity profiles," Dailey said. "And largely associated with, believe it or not, your ankles hurt when you are 30 or 40 pounds overweight. Your knees hurt when you are 30 or 40 pounds overweight. Your knees hurt? Stop eating donuts."

Dailey also said that the Army must change the culture of physical fitness, and bring back accountability to the program.

"You don't get good at physical training unless you do physical training," he said. "When you allow your platoons and your squads to do squad physical training, I can tell you most of the time ... it is not good. I don't know how we ever said we have to let squad leaders do physical training every day. We need to probably reel some of that in. There was a lot of goodness when the battalion had to meet in the quad and salute the flag together. It's called accountability."

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