Drop and give me ... tougher standards

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Theresa Long arrived for Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., last fall, she would hardly have been considered for an extra on the TV show, "Xena: Warrior Princess."

She couldn't do a single pushup or situp. In her first try, Private Long ran the Army's two-mile test in 28 minutes, a distinctly unwarrior-like pace.

But at the end of basic training last week, Long obliterated the zeroes from her scorecard, doing 14 pushups, 50 situps, and running the two-miles in 18 minutes.

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Her basic training unit was the Army's first to adopt a new physical fitness test. The standards, which took effect Feb. 1, are part of an effort to toughen up flabby recruits raised on MTV and Nintendo, and silence complaints that women are being held to lower standards than men.

While the new regimen is not something that would intimidate patrons of Gold's Gym, it does put a little more boot in boot camp - increasing the fitness standards for all Army recruits. It is part of a larger effort to increase the combat readiness of America's young warriors.

"The focus is on making people look, think, and act like soldiers," says battalion commander Lt. Col. Fred Kienle.

The Army hopes to make the new fitness rules universally rigorous, regardless of age or gender. Women ages 17 to 21, for example, now must do 47 situps in two minutes, up from 40. Men, who had to complete 42 situps, will also have to do 47.

The test also makes it harder for experienced soldiers to "max" the physical fitness test, a regular exam given to trainees and line soldiers alike. Long's drill sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Locke, noted that he must do 77 pushups in two minutes to achieve the maximum score while an 18-year-old only has to do 71.

"I don't agree with that," Sergeant Locke says, adding that he favors tougher standards for Army recruits.

IN RECENT years, trainers in all the services have noticed an unmistakable trend. Too many recruits raised on TV, video games, and the Internet come to boot camp with little body tone and lots of body fat; some may never have played sports. Drill sergeants have been know to privately call these out-of-shape recruits "Nintendos" and "Segas."

Colonel Kienle, a Long Island native, describes the generational difference this way. His old high school gym teacher, former Marine "Duke" Greenich, actually had his students march and perform military drills in class. Glancing at old pictures of World War II soldiers displayed in his barracks, he notes how sinewy and fit most soldiers looked.

"They came from farms, factories. They looked lean," he says. But despite the rocky start of his new recruits, Kienle was pleasantly surprised at the end of basic training. His young charges rose to the challenge of the new fitness test, passing in overwhelming numbers.

At Fort Jackson, all recruits now face a lengthy list of requirements, including a grueling three-day event known as "Victory Forge." Modeled after the Marine Corps' "Crucible," Victory Forge tests the mettle of young trainees with sleep-deprived marches, tactical drills, and problem-solving exercises.

In the past year, the Army has nearly doubled the failure rate at Fort Jackson, its largest basic training site.

The new fitness test, Army commanders say, helps to normalize standards regardless of gender, removing complaints about lower standards for women. A common criticism of gender-mixed training has been that many male recruits are not challenged by training next to women, and that women's requirements were too easy.

That perception has been a central argument for congressional conservatives attempting to resegregate basic trainees in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Marine recruits train in separate units at Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego.

More important than gender concerns, Kienle says, is the fact that his battalion's results suggest that men and women are rising to meet tougher baseline standards. The commander notes that his soldiers performed well on the new fitness test despite being sent home for a two-week Christmas break.

"Most of us said the standards are tougher on a whole, and we don't expect them to rise. But they did," he says.

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