Photo by Hector Alejandro

 

Out of the top 10 men and women at this year’s Armed Forces Triathlon Championship, only one woman and two men were enlisted. Only one athlete represented the enlisted ranks in the military division of last year’s Ironman World Championships. That’s almost a totally backwards proportion, considering officers make up 15 percent of the total active duty force. Why is that?

There’s no statistical evidence, but several anecdotes. With the burgeoning weight problem across the services, it’s apparent that military members need to adopt a healthier lifestyle than the current routine of oh-six-hundred physical training (PT) followed by breakfast at the chow hall. Meanwhile, the demographics of the triathlon community, especially Ironman, are a tad homogeneous. I’m not saying everyone should get into Ironman—after all, part of the reason we pursue this is because it’s atypical—but the exclusivity should be a matter of determination and intestinal fortitude, not your social circle.

Instead of an upward trend in physical fitness, we face the outward trend in waistlines.

It bears remarking that the difference in pay scale isn’t an issue. Between equipment price tags and registration fees, this can become an expensive endeavor in a hurry and enlisted members don’t make the kind of money that gets you onto a Scott Plasma. Then again, who buys a superbike for their first race? Neither should the willingness of officer-triathletes to lend support and mentorship to their subordinates be overlooked. No real leader would turn away a highly-motivated airman or sailor.

It therefore occurs to me that motivation is the problem. Quite frankly, “good old fashioned PT” in the Marines and Army sucks by design. We drag the troops out of bed at 6 a.m., rain or shine, and put them through two hours of pure monotony. I know leaders at the small-unit level will protest, but look at the big picture. Most Army units train two hours a day, five days a week, and personnel cram the gyms after duty hours every day. That’s between 10 and 14 hours a week of training—which is maybe only two or three hours shy of the average Ironman champion’s training volume. But instead of an upward trend in physical fitness, we face the outward trend in waistlines. 

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Photo by Sgt. Joshua Ford

The connection lies in a lack of purpose. Few units develop well-planned PT schedules with real goals, let alone accompanying health habit education on things like nutrition. So the daily grind of pushups and sit-ups starts as a pathway to a better you and turns into something just this side of punishment. And you must perform PT with your unit, because how else will we know you actually did it? It’s a broken system that you can’t escape. Who wouldn’t be robbed of all motivation to pursue an individual goal like Ironman after a year of that? 

It’s a different story in the officer ranks. There, individual accountability and initiative are traits that are promoted. Commander and senior enlisted leaders set the pace for group runs and lead from the front. There’s a higher standard placed on them, but it’s a better carrot and stick than what the trooper in the rear gets—a view blocked by those running in front and a sergeant hollering in their ear every time they start to fall behind. 

This leads to an important question. Do our most professional enlisted members become our most physically fit, or is it that our most physically active enlistees turn out to be our top troops? This is chicken-and-egg stuff, but the correlation is undeniable. Exercise improves the body, mind and soul. We’ve highlighted over 16 incredible military athletes in this column in less than a year’s time, and they’re all stellar leaders. How many does it take to prove there’s a connection? 

I’m not alone in this opinion. Consider the following observations of multiple enlisted athletes I’ve spoken to across the services (names withheld):

“Group PT was considered a joke. Making the fit and unfit do everything together punished everyone, just in different ways.”

“Senior NCOs were rarely present. Officers never led us.”

“It’s a big joke that every senior enlisted and high-ranking officer is fat, but it’s commonly accepted that when you reach that rank you don’t have to maintain a high level of physical fitness.”

“The punitive system for failing to make weight and physical fitness standards is well-organized. Where’s the incentive system for fit service members?”

“Initiative is punished in the enlisted world. If you try to work out during lunch, people think you’re trying to get out of work.”

“It was known to everyone in the unit that I was an elite athlete, yet they made me come to PT anyway and forced me into workouts that failed to improve anyone’s fitness.” 

These are uncomfortable revelations, and they indicate cultural stigmas that have existed in the armed forces for a long time. With heightening concerns about physical fitness in the ranks, the first consideration regarding the extra weight on the soldier’s body should be what false assumptions weigh on the leader’s mind. 

Perfero Est Optimus  

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Jim Gourley graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Astronautical Engineering. He served seven years in the Army as an infantry and intelligence officer in the 101st Airborne Division. An Iron-distance triathlete, he writes on technological developments and military athletes in triathlon for LAVA.