Recruiters in southern Virginia evaluate OPAT for Army

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 02, 2016) -- About 260 miles south of Washington, D.C., and just four miles from the Virginia Tech campus in nearby Blacksburg, Virginia, is the New River Valley Mall, in Christiansburg.

Sgt. 1st Class Charles Rachunek, a 21-year Army veteran, and a recruiter now for more than seven years, runs Army operations at Christiansburg's Recruiting Center within the mall. The recruiting center is but one of six within the Blacksburg Recruiting Company, Richmond Recruiting Battalion, 1st Recruiting Brigade.

For two months, April 1 through May 31, Rachunek administered the OPAT to future Soldiers from all six recruiting centers in his company. He was also responsible for teaching other recruiters in his company how to administer the test for themselves. It was part of a pilot program his battalion was conducting to evaluate the OPAT for Recruiting Command.

Near the end of May, Rachunek said he'd administered the OPAT to about 23 future Soldiers from around the company.

"They'd load them up in the van, with two NCOs from the center, bring them over to my office, we'd do the OPAT and train the NCOs to give the OPAT, and then they'd go back," he said.

Rachunek's recruiting center is shared with the other military services, and is in a shopping mall. He said in good weather, they would conduct the first three tests of the OPAT in an empty retail outlet right next to their recruiting center. That would include the standing long jump portion of the test, the strength deadlift, and the seated power throw. Then they would go outside the mall to a grassy area to conduct the interval aerobic run portion of the test.

"If it's not so good weather, we have a National Guard armory right down the street from my office, with a big open bay area. So we would do all four events there," he said. "We also have pretty good relationships with local high schools. So if we needed to, we could always use one of their gymnasiums to do it as well."

Dr. Whitfield East, a research physiologist with the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training, said Rachhunek's strategy for finding a location to perform the OPAT is not unusual -- and it's actually very likely how other recruiting centers around the Army will end up administering the test to their own recruits. Innovation on the part of recruiters will be required, he said.

"You'll see different administrative strategies," East said, regarding how recruiters will go about securing locations for the test. "If they have access to a YMCA or a Boys and Girls Club, that may be a good choice."

Right now, Rachhunek said, his recruiting center is the only one with all the gear to conduct the OPAT, so that is one reason why he's been doing the OPAT for other recruiting centers. That should change this summer when the Army implements the OPAT Army-wide. That, and all the recruiters in his company will have been trained by Rachunek himself to administer the test -- so they won't need him to do it for them anymore.

For those future Soldiers who have taken the OPAT, Rachhunek said they're all doing fairly well, having problems with only one portion of the test.

"The standing long jump, the seated power throw, and the strength deadlift, the future Soldiers are having no problem with," he said. "The event we see the most issues with is the interval aerobic run."

He said that their problems with that portion of the OPAT is no problem for him or the other recruiters, because recruiters in the Blacksburg Recruiting Company already spend ample time with recruits to prepare them in various ways for their Army careers, and that includes work on recruit physical fitness.

"Once a week we meet with our future Soldiers," he said. "Every Thursday we have Future Soldier Training that starts at 1630 hrs. One week we might do classroom stuff, where we give classes on land navigation or the phonetic alphabet or the Army rank structure. Another week we'll do physical fitness training or the PT assessment. The OPAT hasn't added any more time we spend with them -- we already spend quite a bit of time with them."

Rachhunek said that once the OPAT is implemented Army-wide, he thinks it'll give recruiters like him another tool to place Soldiers into the jobs they are most suited to, physically.

"Combined with the ASVAB, it'll give the applicants a good understanding of where they will fit in best, based on those two scores," he said.

East said the OPAT will not only help the Army place Soldiers where they can do best, but it will also help ensure those Soldiers are able to make it all the way through the Army's accessions pipeline, without becoming an attrition casualty before they even get started in their careers.

"This is going to allow us for the first time to establish some minimal physical capabilities to enter the Army," he said. "That's the first thing. To reach those minimal physical capabilities, it may well require young people to do some type of readiness training to establish that fitness foundation. That's going to be a huge plus relative to the injury and attrition rate in IET. And some for those injuries are catastrophic."

(Editor's note: This is the second article in a three-part series on the new Occupational Physical Assessment Test)