The current discussion of Navy personnel fitness from the Chief of Naval Operations on down is timely. The practical reality of fitness in the military is to be able to perform everyday tasks with sufficient reserve for unforeseen emergencies, and especially to be victorious on the battlefield or at sea.
Seemingly, the Navy’s fitness program has lost its rudder. Fitness should be a personal responsibility, embraced from within and driven by mission requirements. Sailors who are not connected to the job-relatedness of being fit fail to see the linkage between abstract surrogates such as distance running and calisthenics.
With an absence of mandatory fitness programs in our public schools, it comes as little surprise that our military would reflect a population that assiduously avoids physical activity except for those regularly involved with organized sports. Today, for the vast majority of recruitment-aged youth, video gaming more likely accounts for time spent in leisure activities. Field-expedient measures of cardiovascular and muscular fitness are, in the minds of many, far removed from reality. After all, when is there some exigent event where the failure to perform would actually result in the loss of life or property, or affect the outcome of some conflict?
The answer to that question is elusive. But we do not excuse an inability to swim as an excuse because lifeguards are rarely called on to save a life. To motivate firefighters to maintain job-related fitness, we created the Firefighter Combat Challenge, which is now in its 25th season as a showcase to demonstrate those life-saving abilities that resonate so vividly in the minds of both the industrial-athletes and their stakeholders. Annually seen by millions both on television and in person, pairs of firefighters race head to head and against the clock, performing five linked tasks that are closely related to real, critical fire-ground tasks.
Aside from the entertainment value of the competition, thousands of fire departments around the world use the Challenge as a benchmark of readiness in a less dramatic or competitive environment of “go or no-go” based upon a cutoff time. In essence, the Navy has a similar, ever-present contingency-based need to ensure survival of ship and crew during General Quarters while performing Damage Control duties.
We conducted a thorough job task analysis for the profession of firefighting and reduced the taxonomy to five arduous and reasonably reproducible ubiquitous tasks. Similarly, a study of the critical events surrounding life-and-death incidents at sea can be turned into a criterion task test as the basis for determining a crew member’s level of damage-control knowledge and skills required to save a ship or submarine. I propose the following incidents would provide real lessons:
• The 1967 Israeli air and surface attack on the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War—34 sailors died.
• The 1967 fire on board the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) while engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War—134 sailors died.
• The 1987 Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark (FFG-31) during the Iran-Iraq War—37 sailors died.
• Iranian mine damage to the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in 1988 during Operation Praying Mantis.
• The 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden, Yemen—17 sailors died.
Such an evaluative process likely would have more buy-in within the fleet by creating the realization of a practical need for personal physical fitness of all Navy ship personnel as a matter of survival.
Selling of fitness includes marketing—the preparation within the target audience that provides critical buy-in to connect the desired outcome with a well-defined need in the mind of the end user. Validation is that nexus between a desired state and a predictor. The closer that linkage is, the more likelihood for compliance.
During the 1980s, under contract to Military Manpower Command, our organization delivered 40-hour programs of instruction to hundreds of commands around the world, with the ultimate goal of certifying to American College of Sports Medicine criteria for Command Fitness Coordinators. The attendees and the commands from which they came were (not surprisingly) frequently a reflection of the ethos of their respective commanding officer.
Not a sermon, just a thought.