Commentary by Lt. Col. Brent McArthur
3rd Space Operations Squadron commander
Fitness is important because it has a direct impact on an Airman’s personal health, which directly contributes to whether the Airman can make a contribution to the Air Force mission to fly, fight, and win.
When I joined the Air Force in 1991, I remember the fitness test was a pretty challenging experience. I arrived at Lackland AFB, Texas, in April 1991 to begin Officer Training School. The first “wakeup” at 5 a.m. and the early morning “fun run” were opposites of what my daily routine was at that time in my life. I wasn’t really awake at 5 a.m. and I wasn’t having fun running that early in the morning.
After a few weeks of this daily routine, our flight completed our first practice physical fitness test to get a feel for where we were and give us an opportunity to set some personal goals. Once the results were posted I was surprised at my score. I thought I was in pretty good shape when I arrived at OTS and thought I could compete well with my peers. Even though I had passed the PFT (I think I scored around 200 of a possible 500), I was embarrassed at my results. I was in the middle of the pack. On that day and at that moment, I made a commitment to myself that I was not going to be average at fitness. I wanted to be at the top of the pack!
The OTS fitness test consisted of pull-ups, a standing long jump, push-ups, sit-ups and a 600-yard dash, all completed within a 15-minute window. A perfect score was 500, 100 points for each of the five categories. I remember several of my flight mates that had scored exceptionally well (above 400). By offering assistance to those of us who didn’t do so well, they were being good “wingmen” before the term became popular.
The morning of the final PFT, I remember the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I wanted a perfect score. Well, I didn’t get that perfect score but I more than doubled my score. My final PFT score was in the neighborhood of 485. I missed “the perfect run time” by just a few seconds. It was a great feeling to have improved, and I was in the best shape of my life.
Throughout the next few years, I saw the fitness test “evolve” from a 1.5 mile run, to a bike test, and then to what we have today… push-ups, sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run. The Air Force leadership seemed to be struggling with how to get folks “fit to fight,” develop a warrior ethos and keep injuries to a minimum for those who “crammed” 30 days prior to their annual PFT. The Air Force leadership seemed to want to change the culture of the fitness of its members and decided modifying the PFT was the answer.
Recently, after several Air Force inspections/audits indicated that Airmen weren’t embracing a culture of fitness and that commanders weren’t enforcing discipline for fitness related issues, our Air Force leadership concluded the PFT and the entire Unit Fitness Program needed some attention. So, the PFT is changing again. This time it’ll be the frequency of the test that changes (we’ll begin testing twice a year) as well as the weighting of some of the components of the test.
Our Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz has publicly stated that fitness is a vital component of Air Force culture. He also said that it’s crucial for the physical fitness test to be applied in a consistent manner across the force. The changes to the testing standards will be clearer and more understandable and provide Airmen with explicit feedback on how they can improve their fitness level. It appears his words are being translated into action throughout the Air Force.
As a squadron commander, I have seen the positive and negative effects of being fit and not being fit. Unfortunately, I had to initiate separation paperwork on a first term Airman because he could not make the commitment to succeed in this area. I’ve also had to sign off on a referral performance report because an Airman failed his fitness test just prior to his performance report being due.
So, what does fitness have to do with leadership? It has everything to do about personal leadership and being a good wingman. From early on in my Air Force career I wanted to do my best and was looking for opportunities to shine, just like almost everyone that joins the Air Force. Once I made the initial cut, it seemed to me that the Air Force fitness standards were one way for new accessions and a different way for active duty members. As I watched our senior leaders make decisions about fitness I saw them reacting in order to correct the poor fitness behavior they were witnessing. The leadership told me to be fit yet the program measuring fitness didn’t seem to match what senior leaders wanted.
Today’s senior Air Force leadership wants all of us to be healthy, fit and ready to say “send me” when a tasking comes our way. They have revised the fitness program and have provided us with the tools to succeed; now it’s up to us to deliver. It is every Airman’s personal responsibility to be ready (especially physically fit) when called upon and it is also every Airman’s responsibility to help our wingman be physically ready if he/she is not.
Leadership is about being self-motivated, setting the example, and “practicing what you preach.” Our Air Force leaders are telling us it is important to them and the nation for us to make fitness a part of our daily routine. It is up to us to execute that directive and do our best (excellence in all we do) to continue to improve.