"Are you ready?” Admiral Karl Schultz asked this question in his address to the U.S. Coast Guard after being appointed as its 26th Commandant in 2018. He established three Rs for the service he now commanded: Ready, Relevant, and Responsive. After introducing his guiding principles, he asked those watching if they were ready.1 In one key area, unfortunately, we are not ready. The Coast Guard remains the only military branch to not hold its members accountable for physical fitness.
Fitness is a longstanding military tradition. The Air Force Academy, Military Academy at West Point, and U.S. Naval Academy all have outstanding NCAA Division I athletic programs and long traditions of athletic excellence. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy sees the benefits as well, requiring all cadets to participate in sports.2
All applicants are screened for physical fitness before entering one of the service academies. Three academies use the Candidate Fitness Assessment.3 It consists of six parts: a kneeling basketball throw, cadence pull-ups, a 120-foot shuttle run, crunches for one minute, push-ups for one minute, and a one-mile run. The Coast Guard Academy conducts a different test for its cadets: a cadence push-up test, a two-minute sit-up test, and a 1.5-mile run.4 Cadets are required to complete the test every semester, approximating the six-month assessment required by the other armed services.
Similarly, aspiring Coast Guardsmen are required to complete a physical fitness exam on entering basic training, and recruits are challenged to achieve higher fitness test scores prior to graduation.5 If at any point a recruit fails to meet the baseline standards, he or she will be held back until they pass.
Enlisted personnel are required to test again before going to “A” school. Morning group workouts push future Coast Guard petty officers to enhance their fitness and step into enlisted leadership roles. However, this is the last time enlisted personnel are held accountable for their fitness levels.
The Physical Fitness Test
Every military branch except the Coast Guard requires a semiannual physical fitness test (PFT). The tests vary from branch to branch but usually include running, push-ups, and sit-ups. However, the Coast Guard holds only certain billets to annual fitness standards. These billets typically include search-and-rescue boat crew, divers, rescue swimmers, and others, constituting only 25 percent of the active-duty members. The remaining 75 percent merely must be weighed and evaluated based on body mass index (BMI), the comparison of height versus weight to determine estimated body fat. If a member’s BMI level is maintained, then the Coast Guard does not test their physical fitness.
The Coast Guard says three problems force it to choose a BMI evaluation instead of a semiannual PFT. First, it lacks the proper infrastructure for holding semiannual PFTs. Second, the service lacks sufficient medical personnel to rehabilitate injured service members so they are able to take the PFT. And third, there is a potential loss of valuable service members in nonoperational billets if they fail the PFT.
Logistically, cost is always a concern. Other armed services have spent tens of millions of dollars on equipment and facilities to prepare service members for the PFT. However, expensive facilities and equipment are not necessary to complete push-ups, sit-ups,
and a run.
If the Coast Guard is opting out of fitness assessments because of the prevalence of injuries, then there is a clear breakdown in care. If service members are too injured to complete a basic PFT, are they healthy enough to do their jobs? Or, more important, is the Coast Guard so ill-equipped it cannot keep its most valuable assets healthy?6 If so, then battling injuries should be a top priority.
Losing good people is always tough, but the Coast Guard must not put readiness in jeopardy for service members who were able to meet the standard in the past and now choose not to.
Snow in Alaska or being in the middle of a patrol in the South Pacific are legitimate reasons to delay semiannual PFTs. However, neither patrols nor snow last forever. Based on location, units could decide whether to conduct the test in April or October. Currently, those two months are marked for semiannual weigh-ins, so it makes sense to keep on that schedule. Units should also be able to submit waivers based on deployment status, weather, and extraneous circumstances.
One simple advantage of the PFTs would be discouraging crash dieting a week before weigh-ins. A popular measure for service members near the max weight standard is to starve themselves and workout to lose weight long enough to get recorded. Severe dehydration has also been used to drop weight. Both options are detrimental to a long-term healthy lifestyle.
Any Coast Guardsmen struggling with a documented injury should receive a maximum of six months of physical therapy, at which point they will be reevaluated to determine if they are fit for full duty and therefore able to take the PFT. If they are not, medical professionals will determine if another six months is appropriate for healing and rehabilitation. If the service member cannot resume normal duties, then he or she should be processed for separation.
By holding annual PFTs, the Coast Guard will require its members to maintain the high standard to which they were held on entering service. A career-long PFT requirement will ultimately make its people more fit and healthy by developing long-term health goals, rehabilitating injuries, and even preventing new injuries because of enhanced fitness. This will make the Coast Guard stronger, and make strides toward being Ready, Relevant, and Responsive.
1. “Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz Delivers His Guiding Principles to the Fleet,” Youtube video, posted by U.S. Coast Guard, 1 June 2018.
2. U.S. Coast Guard Academy, “Physical Fitness Exam (PF3),” www.uscgasports.com/information/PFE.
3. Stewart Smith, “U.S. Military Fitness Test Requirements,” liveabout.com, 23 January 2019.
4. U.S. Coast Guard Academy, “Physical Fitness Exam (PF3).”
5. Stewart Smith, “USCG Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA),” military.com.
6. U.S. Coast Guard, Education Services Office: Coast Guard Base Boston Personnel Support, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.