NEWS ITEM: The United States Army has announced plans to toughen its fitness testing to make sure all soldiers have the strength, endurance, and mobility for battle. The system that is used now, the Army admits, “does not translate into survival on the battlefield.”
The current outmoded system, the Army admits, is 30 years old.
One of the installations at which testing is to be held is Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
I spent the winter of ’62 — that’s nineteen sixty-two — at Leonard Wood. Thanks to a summons from my Uncle Sam. Hospitality courtesy of the 33d Infantry Division.
Forty-nine years later and the memories still linger. Fort-Lost-in-the-Woods it was called then. There was a sort of grudging admiration in that sobriquet for a hill-pocked mud hole of a military reservation located in the scrub trees and red clay foothills of the Missouri Ozarks.
It was, to quote the travel brochure, truly the middle of nowhere. The Boondocks. Where the naive and the unsuspecting are unceremoniously dumped to undergo what the Army calls basic training. Or in the words of the instructor on the hand-grenade range, a buck sergeant with a gravel voice and two wars behind him: “It isn’t good for anything else, but it’s the best there is for us to whip your sorry asses into soldiers who at least got a chance to come out alive.”
He had a quaint sense of humor: “How do you put this pin back in the grenade? V-e-r-r-r-r-y carefully.” A frantic scramble ensued, much to his delight.
But his point was well-taken and somberly and graphically illustrated on the large billboard at the entrance to each training company. It showed an American fighting man silhouetted against the bloody and chaotic rubble of a battlefield, with this poignant plea: “Let no man’s soul cry out, ‘Had I but had the proper training.’”
Translation: If we’re going to ask them to be willing to die for us, then the least we can do is give them every chance to live. That’s the bare minimum.
So then, it was off to bayonet sparring, and the man in charge clicked 12 inches of steel onto the business end of an M-1 rifle and said: “There are two kinds of bayonet fighters — the quick and the dead. Which one will you be?”
I remember how quiet it was.
And then, on a dark, cold February night we were introduced to the infiltration course: Crawl on your belly toward the machine guns that were firing just over your head. The grim admonition not to stand up seemed totally superfluous. Besides, every other round was a tracer bullet, and you were certain the next one was for you.
“You’ll think that,” the sergeant had counseled, helpfully, “for two reasons — optical illusion …
He was right, of course. Fear, after all, is a powerful motivator. Fear, sometimes, can push you beyond what you thought was your limit. Fear, sometimes, can get you out alive.
But what of today’s soldier? Are we doing right by him? It doesn’t sound like it — not when you admit with a stunning nonchalance that you’re 30 years, at least, behind the times in training and preparation. Thirty years? Shame on us.
We have always taken pride in believing American fighting men are always the best-equipped. But that alone is not enough.
The old methods — sit-ups, push-ups, a two-mile run — don’t really prepare them for modern battle. So, even if late, the Army is adopting lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans who had to adjust in the field to carrying between 40 and 70 pounds of weapons and body armor.
The Army says it is also considering administering a physical-readiness test every six months that would be tailored to today’s battle conditions — including negotiating obstacle courses in full combat gear, running on a balance beam while carrying a 30-pound ammo box, and dragging a sled weighted with 180 pounds of sandbags.
Why the weighted sled? Because it simulates the act of pulling a fallen comrade from the battlefield.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the head of Army training, said: “This is a good combat-related test. This is about training smarter, not just training more.”
And apparently not a moment too soon.
Bill Lyon is the author of Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.