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Focus On Fitness: 'Get In Shape So You Can Join The Army'

Carson Frame
Texas Public Radio
Cadets at St. Mary's University Army ROTC participate in a morning workout.

The Army is facing a manpower shortage in an era when most young Americans don’t qualify to serve in the armed forces—mostly because of obesity. But the service has come up with a way to screen recruits whose health habits put them at greater risk of injuries during training.

On a chilly morning in south Texas, steam rose off the backs of Army ROTC cadets at St. Mary’s University as they performed sit-ups, lunges, and high jump exercises during remedial physical training.

The junior-year cadets were less than a week away from taking a test called the OPAT — or Occupational Physical Assessment Test. It’s like the SAT for people who want to join the Army. If they score high, they can choose jobs that are more physically demanding, like infantry or armor. But if they score low, they’ll be limited to less active jobs.

The test measures muscular strength and endurance, along with cardiorespiratory fitness, explosive power and speed. Recruits have to pass four different tests: a run, a deadlift, a standing long jump and a power throw.

Seventy percent of people pass the OPAT on the first try, and just about everybody else passes after a few attempts. In 2017, out of over 69,900 regular Army recruits (not reserve or National Guard), only 11 did not achieve the minimum level and chose to be discharged.

Jonathan Molnar, a bespectacled junior, said he feels ready for the test. But it’s been hard getting his body into Army-level shape. He played soccer until age 15, but stopped when he reached high school and started work at a fast food chain.

“I took PE my freshman year and after there wasn’t really any requirements,” Molnar said. “I moved up to San Antonio my sophomore year and … I kind of just vegetated.”

Molnar never thought of himself as being unfit, but he struggled to keep up initially.

“When I got to St. Mary’s I realized, ‘Hey, I can’t do as much,’” he said. “But it’s just creating a regimen to counteract that and get where you want to be.”

Molnar’s not the only one who’s had to make adjustments. Lt. Col.John Lankford, an ROTC instructor at Saint Mary’s, said he sees a lot of cadets surprised by the Army’s fitness requirements, even those who come from athletic backgrounds.

“Most of our cadets are from Texas, and most of them have some sort of physical fitness in their past. Whether they played a sport in high school , or competed in something, or they did JROTC in high school,” Lankford said. “But ultimately, the majority of them, once they come into the program, don’t understand physical fitness from the Army’s perspective. So some of the exercises that we do and the endurance running they struggle with.”

The ROTC program at Saint Mary’s focuses on functional fitness and building recruits up gradually so that they don’t get hurt, according to Lankford.

“We don’t train for specific events. We train cadets to develop those core muscles to be physically fit. And all of that translates to their success in the OPAT,” he said.

Credit Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Cadets at St. Mary's University Army ROTC participate in a morning workout.

Injury Prevention

Starting last year, the Army initiated the OPAT as a fitness stepping stone before basic training. The idea is for new recruits to build themselves up before they ship out.

The Army offers limited help to people who need to pass the OPAT. Recruiters hand out fitness guides and exercise info to boost test scores, and will sometimes host voluntary group workouts. They can hold recruits back from training until they’re physically ready.

The OPAT’s real focus is injury prevention, according to Michael McGurk, the director for research and analysis at the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training.

“We're trying to change attitudes from 'Join the Army and get in shape' to 'Get in shape so you can join the Army.' ”

Unfit recruits have plagued the Army in recent years. Before the OPAT was implemented, out-of-shape recruits faced a much steeper climb to physical fitness. In just 10 weeks of basic training, many had to build muscle and shed pounds — and often got hurt in the process.

Every injury that occurs has economic and tactical implications for the Defense Department. On top of the delays, each injury costs the Defense Department upwards of $30,000.

“What we've been working towards is injury prevention,” McGurk said. “The more people you get injured, the more the system has to slow down as it compensates for them. If those people get injured and they can't continue training, we have to move them to train with a class that starts next week. Or two weeks later or three weeks later.”

Readiness By Region                  

In the southeast — the Army’s primary recruiting ground — the problem is magnified. Recruits there are less fit than in other states and 28 percent more likely to get hurt, said Citadel researcher Dan Bornstein.

“When you've got that big of a difference, it becomes very significant,” he said. “It means that the recruits coming from these states are having a disproportionate impact on the military readiness of the Army.

“Society, and these southern states in particular, are giving the Army lemons and asking them to make lemonade out of those lemons.”

Obesity is souring the Army’s recruiting field, with 71 percent of young Americans ineligible to serve in the military. The most common disqualifier is weight, according to a report from the Heritage Foundation.

The Trump administration has asked for more troops, meaning that the Army is now facing a hefty recruitment quota: 80,000 new soldiers by the end of the year. Help from the states would be welcome, McGurk said.

“Any programs that increase the health and fitness of America’s youth in our high schools across the country, we think are fantastic,” he said.

But for now, the Army is focusing on preventing injuries and safely beefing up the recruits it has. Since the Army starting using the OPAT, it says attrition has gone down by 10 percent.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.