To say that the US Army is changing, is like saying the weather is changing – it is, always, but this change is unlike anything that has ever been attempted.
The primary concern of the Air Force is airplanes – keeping them flying. The primary concern of the Navy is ships and airplanes. The Marines – God bless em, as great as they are, they are part of the Navy. If you enlist for four years as a Marine grunt, you’ll be lucky if you don’t spend six months, or more, of it on a ship, sleeping on a 30-inch by 72-inch steel bunk, 17 inches below the one above you.
The primary concern of the Army is people. The Army is the ground soldiers, there must be soldiers on the ground, to hold territory. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw many support soldiers involved in the fighting, either in convoys, moving from one place to another, or real fighting on a Combat Outpost. The Army Combat Action Badge was created to recognize non-infantry soldiers who engaged the enemy in combat.
One of the observations from those wars, was that overall, soldiers were not in good enough physical condition for the heat of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.
The discussion of better physical fitness started about 15 years ago. The Army had a “Master Fitness Trainer” course in the 1980’s, but it folded, during the wars. It was re-opened in 2013. It trains sergeants and officers in the proper conduct of physical fitness training. They then return to their units to train others.
In 1977, six foot seven, Robert B. Brown was the number two high school basketball pick in Michigan. He went to West Point and played basketball under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, scoring over 1,000 points while there, graduating in 1981. In 2014, then Lieutenant General Brown, Commander of the Army Combined Arms Center, leading a discussion titled “The Soldier Athlete”, at a meeting of the Association of the US Army (AUSA), said we need to train our soldiers like athletes. General Mark Milley, who became Chief of Staff of the Army in 2015, currently Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was Captain of the Princeton Hockey Team, graduating in 1980, agreed. So did then Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, currently the Secretary of Defense, who graduated from West Point in 1986.
Regular Army PT (Physical Training), was not preparing soldiers for the physical rigors of combat. There were a lot of combat veterans, in the Army, when the discussion started about how to evaluate soldiers’ preparedness for combat. As the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) was being developed, a much more radical change in physical training was also being developed. This is not just a change in physical training, but a program that focuses on the individual, holistically encompassing the soldiers’ life, physical, sleep, nutritional, spiritual, and mental.
The driving force behind all this is readiness. A recent Army News article said that as of February 2019, more than 56,000 soldiers were non-deployable. Also, more than 21,000 were on a temporary injured list, and more than 15,000 had some kind of permanent injury. Almost half of all soldiers are injured at some point, and 71% of those injuries are lower extremity micro-traumatic musculoskeletal “overuse” injuries. In 2018, more than 12% of soldiers had some form of sleep disorder and 17% of active duty soldiers were overweight. Also, included in this conversation, was active duty suicide. How ever many there are, its’ tragic, traumatic, and too many. For the Army to be able to field a healthy, fit, lethal force, soldiers’ life style has to change.
In 2017, the Army ran a six month pilot program, called the Soldier Readiness Test. It temporarily assigned a strength and conditioning coach, a physical therapist, a registered dietician, and an occupational therapist to selected battalions. The increase in health, fitness, and morale was so successful that a two year pilot program started in 2018, in an expended number of units, with increased funding, equipment, and personnel. It was soon named H2F-lite pilot. Several sergeants from those battalions were sent to the Master Fitness Trainer school, and Athletic Trainers, Strength Coaches, Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, and Dietitians were hired and placed under the supervision of those Battalion Commanders, who were tasked with implementing the program and identifying any bugs. A lead strength and conditioning coach said; “The greatest part for me is that I see people coming to PT in the morning and they are engaged and excited to be there.” Captain Samantha Morgan, a physical therapist said; “People are coming to physical therapy proactively versus being told they have to come, so when people do have PT or training related injuries they’re getting better faster.” The medical people and the Chaplain and Chaplain Assistant, were also brought into the H2F Team. Chaplains are not part of the program to preach, but to monitor unit morale, and help with personal problems. There is a rule in the Army, anyone can go see the Chaplain anytime. Chaplain’s and their assistants are presented with all kinds of problems. In my story “Be an Army Chaplain Assistant”, I tell the story of a Chaplain Assistant who was confronted by an infantry Private, whose wife was having mental issues. Threatening to kill herself and her unborn baby, if he didn’t start spending more time at home. A Private in the infantry has little control of his schedule. That time, everything worked out. The “spiritual readiness” of a soldier is comprised of his or her core values, and beliefs, and life visions, arising from religious or non-religious beliefs, philosophical and moral values.
On October 1st, 2020, the Army published a new Field Manuel (FM) 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness. This makes the program command policy, army wide. The Army physical year (FY) starts October 1st, and funds have already been allocated for current FY 2021, to start implementing H2F. Every Brigade is getting a new H2F staff, to be under the direction of the Brigade Commander. The H2F Program Director will be civil service GS-13, starting salary of about $78,000, although the solicitations say that salary will be negotiated with non-prior civil service applicants. Under the Program Director, will be a Captain, Nutrition Director, with civilian and military dietitians, a Captain Injury Director/Provider, with military and civilian physical therapists and a contracted civilian athletic trainer for each battalion, a Captain Combat Enhancement Director, with civilian and military occupational therapists. There will also be civilian strength coaches advising the professional military physical trainers. In FY 2023, construction is to start on a 40,000 square foot “Soldier Performance Readiness Center” (SPRC), for EACH BRIGADE. That is about twice the size of most current army fitness centers. The Brigade H2F Team will be housed in the SPRC, and every company in the Brigade will rotate through the SPRC several times weekly. Daily physical training will not necessarily be the first hour of the day, for everyone. Until the SPRC’s are constructed, H2F teams will utilize whatever facilities are available, like current fitness centers.
The Registered Dietician’s role is in fueling and nutritional needs for various aspects of performance. The Dietician coaches soldiers on diets that support fitness training, brain performance, healing from injury, and special dietary needs in the field environment. Consequently, the Dietician helps soldiers consider meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking skills, and how to navigate the complex market of supplements.
The Occupational Therapist is primarily involved in the mental fitness of soldiers, utilizing skills such as coaching on sleep optimization behaviors, goal setting, habit change, attention and focus control, energy management, communication, team dynamics, and other tactical mental operations involved in leadership, planning, and Warrior tasks. As an expert in both cognitive and musculoskeletal domains, the Occupational Therapist also supports physical aspects of physical performance such as ergonomics of load carriage, visuospatial skills in marksmanship, and evaluation and treatment of the upper extremities.
This is not just a new PT program, this is a complete change of soldier life style, to that of an athlete. I won’t say professional athlete, because the pro’s usually train for one activity. Gone is the one size fits all approach to physical conditioning. This is a program designed to get to every individual soldier, to change eating, sleeping, and activity habits, to create a healthy person both physically and mentally. A part of this program is leaders’ education, to insure that the change in life style actually happens. Good health and strength fosters good self confidence, which soldiers must have.
The new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), was designed in conjunction with H2F. It is a six timed event test. “In shape” people, who have taken it, said that each event didn’t seem to be too hard (except for the leg tuck), but by the time they finished the test, they were exhausted. There is no point adjustment for age or gender. It is, “how capable is this solder of performing in combat”.
This is a big event in an explosive evolution in the Army, that has been growing for about the past five years. A new four-star command (The Army Futures Command) was created and headquartered in downtown Austin, Texas, to not only get the latest technology into the Army as fast as possible, but to solicit new inventions, like a laser 10 times larger than the Navy’s laser weapon, big enough to knock down incoming cruise missiles.
Not only weapons technology, but lighter field equipment, and a new rifle with ammunition capable of penetrating lightly armored vehicles and any body armor. Computer systems and operators capable of invading and controlling adversarial systems. To do all of this, the Army must have healthy, alert, and quick thinking individual soldiers. The Army is a team of teams, but individual soldiers must often be able to think quickly on their feet, and make adjustments, without higher direction, when necessary. Enlisted Management Branches in the Army Human Resource Command (HRC) periodically posts names of soldiers who will be up for reassignment, in a future window. They then post the assignments, that must be filled, during that window, and they encourage soldiers to go online and post their preferences. Quite a change from the old days, when you just “came down on orders”. The United States of America places more confidence and trust in the individual soldier, than any other country in the world.
There is another evolutionary event, in the Army, that goes along with this. That is the demise of the “shark attack”. For many years, on the day new trainees arrive at their basic training company, they have been met by a swarm of screaming drill sergeants. That has become known as the shark attack. I’m not sure when it started. The first Drill Sergeants were created in 1964, just before the start of the Vietnam War. During Vietnam, the majority of trainees were draftees, and did not want to be there, so I’m sure the shark attack started as the drills established dominance and authority over the draftees.
I was the senior drill sergeant of a basic training company 1979 to 1981, and we didn’t do it. Every company was different.
Now that first day of Army Basic Combat Training is called “The first 100 yards”. The new trainees are briefed on what is expected of them, they are organized into platoons and given a couple of resupply missions, which may be something as simple as moving boxes of MRE’s (meal Ready to Eat) from one location to another, but will require platoon team work. They will perform three of the ACFT exercises, the leg tuck, the hand-release pushup, and the standing power throw. Platoons that fail to get the highest score will be an appropriate corrective exercise, pushups (in other words “smoked”). They will then be instructed to retrieve their baggage, and move it into the company area.
Next comes a demonstration by a squad of infantry in full battle dress, moving with M4 carbines and other weapons through smoke and pyrotechnics, showing what they will be able to do at the end of basic training.
The First 100 Yards ends with the drill sergeants marching trainees to their platoon bays to begin what will be the first two weeks of isolated training, known as “controlled monitoring,” as part of the Covid-19 safety protocols the Army began in the spring. Basic training is as tough as it has ever been, and the discipline is as strict as it has ever been, they are just dropping the shark attack. Welcome to the adult world.
US Army soldiers are generally treated with great respect throughout this country. That respect is important, in that it fosters pride in being a soldier. Most soldiers are proud of being a soldier. They have confidence in themselves and their team, and they are part of something bigger than themselves, defending this country. Part of that pride is in wearing the uniform. World War II is the basis, the launch pad, of the modern Army. The Navy and the Marines have the same service uniforms they had in WWII. The Navy tried to stray off the uniform reservation once, but corrected itself. The Army has tinkered with uniforms since the 1950’s. Finally, starting in December 2020, new recruits will be issued the new Army Green Uniform, which is actually the old WWII uniform, and next summer it will be available for sale to all soldiers. Thank you.