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Fitness failure discharges up 40 percent

March 20, 2013 (Photo Credit: image Credit)

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Almost 13,000 sailors could be just a jelly doughnut away from getting kicked out of the Navy.

For sailors who failed their Physical Fitness Assessment twice in their last seven tries, failure on their next test — whether for the run, the pushups, the situps or the telltale measuring tape — means automatic expulsion.

Some 8,633 sailors have been bounced for fitness failures since 2007, and the pace of terminations is increasing.

Due in part to changes put in place last summer, the Navy processed 1,549 separations for failed fitness assessments in fiscal year 2012 through Aug. 31 — a 40 percent increase over the 1,104 kicked out the previous year, and that's with a month left of data to come.

Some of the changes:

Sailors no longer get unlimited do-overs. Instead, they can get one retest with their commanding officer's approval.

High-tenure, unfit sailors can no longer coast to retirement. Sailors with 18 years in must still pass the PFA instead of going into a grace period until they hit 20 years.

Sailors joining new commands no longer get a free pass. Instead, they must take the PFA with little warning. It means that they could theoretically arrive at their new command on a Monday and take the PFA on Tuesday.

Those changes resulted in some 60,000 more sailors taking the PFA between 2008 and 2012 — even though the total number of sailors in uniform declined in that period.

It's all part of an effort to put an end to the so-called "three mile club" — those who run 1.5 miles just twice a year at the semiannual tests — and instead inculcate the force with the sense that fitness is part of the job, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Juan Garcia, assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs — and a reservist himself — says the goal is to make everyone in the fleet accountable for his or her own physical readiness, no matter the circumstances.

Sailors can indeed stay fit even in cramped submarines or at austere outposts in the war zone, he said.

Changing the culture

Garcia, a drilling reservist at a volunteer training unit at Joint Base Andrews, Md., uses his own career to illustrate how much the Navy has changed since he first joined the service 20 years ago and experienced his first unit physical readiness test at his first command.

"I'll never forget, the command master chief won the run," he recalled in a Nov. 1 interview. "He lapped everybody; he was one of those rabbits. He did the whole thing while smoking a cigarette. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen."

Not anymore. Today, the Navy tries to discourage smoking and expects sailors to be fit or get out.

The current shift to tighter standards began in 2005, when the Navy started cracking down. It began to kick out sailors for failing PFAs and barred unfit sailors from taking certain jobs, including recruiting, individual augmentee assignments, duty in Washington D.C., and overseas duty. Soon, so-called "progress waivers" were eliminated, requiring sailors who had slacked off to meet fitness standards much faster than before. And in 2008, the Navy introduced its first physical training uniform, intended to send the signal that working out is as much as a part of the job as knowing how to use your weapons system. Also, E-8 and E-9 advancement lists are searched for sailors who failed the most recent cycle, and before those sailors can promote, they must pass a mock PFA.

"Again, making it a professional evolution and not a gaggle of guys in Led Zeppelin T-shirts," Garcia said.

The newest rules are just another part of this evolution, Garcia said, pushing sailors to work out more and requiring commands to give them time to hit the gym.

At the same time, the Navy has increased its internal workout programs, offered individual nutritional assistance and improved the healthy eating options in ship galleys and chow halls.

Garcia points to today's master chiefs as proof that the fleet has undergone a massive transformation, describing a recent meeting of the top command master chiefs in the Navy.

"I had the chance to talk to them, and one thing was clear: the decades-old stereotypes about a crusty master chief with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, that's not what I saw," Garcia said. "Our senior enlisted look like recruiting posters today."

Rewarding high achievers

While the new rules have led to more failing sailors — 13,756 in the second half of fiscal 2011 and 13,256 in the most recent cycle, up from the roughly 10,000 who failed every other cycle back to 2008 — the focus on fitness could pay off for those on the other side of the scale.

Sailors with excellent physical readiness test scores could someday be rewarded for their performance with positive marks on their evaluations.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told a virtual all-hands gathering in October that he's receptive to documenting solid performances in evaluations and fitness reports.

Adding that as an incentive might not eliminate the fear factor for those who perpetually straddle the line on body-fat measurements or the 1½ mile run, but it could prove a motivator for others, and that's worth talking about, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens said at the same all-hands call.

"We've had this discussion before, how we can better incentivize it. We've talked about it in the past but we really haven't done anything with it," he said.

Now might be the time.

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