Staff Sgt. Stephen Jenkins, 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron physical training leader, times and records Tech. Sgt. Paul Nelson's push-ups and sit-ups for the annual fitness test. (Airman 1st Class Shen-Chia Chu / Air Force)
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New physical training standards put in place two years ago promised to be much tougher. They've been tougher than you might have guessed.
The number of airmen getting the boot for failing PT has increased 400 percent since 2010 and ten-fold since 2007, propelling physical standards to one of the most common reasons for involuntary discharges — behind only misconduct and failure to secure a re-enlistment when a commitment term ends.
Air Force officials say the tougher fitness standards are not intentionally being used to cut the force, though some airmen say that's exactly what's happening. Instead, officials say, the increase in discharges over PT is part of the natural fallout of stringent new policies and a more fitness-conscious culture where commanders are far less tolerant of PT flunkers.
The Air Force rules do not specifically require separation for fitness failures. But Air Force Instruction 36-2905 requires commanders to make discharge or retention recommendations for every airman who has received four failures in a 24-month period.
"In creating a more fitness-conscious culture, Air Force leaders have generally become more tolerant of separating airmen who do not meet fitness standards," said John Park, deputy director of force management policy for the Air Force, in a statement provided by spokesman Maj. Joel Harper. Park declined to be interviewed for this article.
Taking the hit
Discharge data provided to Air Force Times show that failing to meet physical standards is the fastest growing reason airmen are involuntarily discharged.
Since 2007, the number of active-duty airmen who have been discharged for not meeting fitness standards jumped from 156 in 2007 to 1,319 in 2012 — with two months still left in the year.
What the discharge numbers don't capture is how many airmen are administratively demoted for PT failures — another penalty allowed under the more stringent rules that can ultimately end an airman's career. The number of demotions for failing PT is not tracked, said Mike Dickerson, spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center.
But Air Force data provided to Air Force Times show the number of airmen demoted under a general category — under AFI 36-2503, which includes failure to keep fit, failure to perform and failure to achieve appropriate skill levels for the career field — has shot up from fewer than 100 in 2007 to 528 last year. So far this year, 458 have been demoted in this category, which makes up 12.5 percent of the total demotions in all categories, including Article 15s and courts-martial.
Among the number of airmen officially discharged for PT failures, the majority is enlisted airmen — a group that has struggled most with the new PT test.
PT test score data show that officers are more likely to score excellent on their PT tests at every major Air Force command. Among enlisted airmen, those at the beginning and closer to the end of their careers performed better on the assessment. Noncommissioned officers and senior NCOs were the least likely to achieve excellent status, and E-6s had the highest failure rate.
No time for PT
One airman, a jet mechanic who asked that his name not be used for fear of further damaging his career, said he's not surprised that enlisted airmen are failing the most and facing discharges as a result. Many enlisted airmen, he said, particularly those who work as maintainers and in security forces, have little time to work out because of their odd shift hours.
"Maintainers and cops are constantly working long and strange hours, while many other squadrons work set hours and can, most of the time, work PT into a routine," he said. "Some bases provide 24-hour gyms, some do not."
The airman, who said he was administratively demoted for failing the PT test seven times in 11 years, said mandatory programs for airmen who fail their PT tests are often run by people who have no idea how to work with someone recovering from an injury to fitness, which only results in more injuries. Since his last failure, he has been put on a restrictive profile and is required to only pass the abdominal waist circumference, giving him a break on the 1.5-mile run, situp and pushup portions of the test. The airman aggravated a foot injury during his last test and has an ongoing problem with his shoulder.
"I think the PT program is just another force-shaping tool that is hurting good airmen," he said. "There are guys and girls out there that are phenomenal at their job, and they make the Air Force look great."
The PT rules, he said, give too much power to commanders who fail to recognize that people can be good at their jobs but not PT.
"That is what is putting a lot of people into trouble when it comes to PT fails," he said.
Discharges expected to drop
Air Force officials expected additional PT failures when they unveiled the more stringent standards in 2010, with some predictions putting the failure rate at one in four airmen.
Those predictions were close, but over the past two years, the pass rate has risen to 94 percent of airmen earning a passing score of 75. Of those, more than 50 percent scored above 90, which allows them to take the test once a year instead of two times.
The Air Force anticipates that just as failures have declined, discharges because of PT failures will too, Park said in the statement to Air Force Times.
"It was originally predicted that 25 percent to 30 percent of airmen would fail their first test under new standards, however, the highest the failure rate reached was 22.1 percent," Park said. "This failure rate steadily declined over the last 25 months to a rate of 5.9 percent today."
PT isn't a force-shaping tool, Park said, but changes to the policy are likely having an impact that will normalize, the same way that failure rates have leveled off.
Some of those specific policy changes that the Air Force believes are driving up the discharge numbers include changes to the minimum requirements to pass the fitness test and increased testing frequency, he said.
"From fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2010 airmen had to obtain a single minimum total score for all test components to pass the test," Park said. "The minimum changed from 70 points to 75 points in October 2007. Airmen could compensate for a weakness in one component by performing very well in others."
That ability to compensate in stronger areas changed in July 2010, when the Air Force implemented the new fitness scoring charts along with the requirement to meet a minimum score in each fitness component. That also is when airmen started taking the test every six months instead of every 12 months, unless they scored at least a 90.
"The increased testing frequency allowed failures to accumulate more quickly," Park said.
Still, Park said, the number of airmen who leave the service because of an inability to meet physical fitness standards is small when compared with the 30,000 to 40,000 airmen who leave the service each year because of retirements and other voluntary separations.
PT or job performance?
But it's the increased focus on PT, one master sergeant said, that sends the message to airmen that physical fitness is more important than being good at their jobs.
"There is not as severe repercussions for your overall duty as there is for PT. I know people who are really not the best of the best that we have in the Air Force, but they have a 31-inch waist and they can pass the PT test with a 95 or 98 because they're skinny," said the master sergeant, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. "But someone who is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and has a waist that is over 37.5 inches but are good at their job — they're in a lot more danger of getting discharged from the Air Force because of PT than those who are not really living up to Air Force standards as far as performance."
According to the discharge numbers, more than 1,300 airmen were separated for failure to meet physical standards in 2012, while a little more than 300 airmen have been separated for unsatisfactory job performance.
The master sergeant said forcing airmen to pass a waist measurement — especially if they are on a medical profile that prevents them from taking other portions of the test — is unfair.
He advocates ditching the waist measurement, because he doesn't believe all waist measurements are taken the same way. He said he's seen an airman fail the PT test because of waist circumference but go into the base health and wellness center for a courtesy waist check on different days and come back with two different measurements — one that would have failed and one that would have passed.
"It's so subjective because, depending on a person's body, where you put that tape — up or down a person's torso — could vary and inch or two," he said. "It's causing a lot of stress on a lot of people, and a lot of people quite frankly are losing their careers over it."
Air Force officials have said repeatedly that the only message the service has ever tried to send with its new PT standards is that it expected airmen to live healthier lifestyles and make fitness a part of their everyday lives.
Neal Baumgartner, a retired Air Force major and exercise physiologist with the 342nd Training Squadron who helped revamp the test, said the assessment components were chosen because they were determined to be the best measure of aerobic fitness, body composition and muscular fitness.
He said the new test is the first Defense Department health-related physical fitness test to use science-based standards that were thoroughly vetted and reviewed by science experts.
"Our current test and the specific components we use were purposefully selected to best assesses the cardio respiratory endurance [aerobic fitness], body composition, and muscular fitness components of physical fitness and to motivate airmen to improve their health and fitness by rewarding incremental improvement — moving from ‘unsatisfactory' to ‘satisfactory' and from ‘satisfactory' to ‘excellent', thereby reducing health risk both now and in the future," he said in an email. "While perfectly suited to provide a fair and accurate assessment of airmen fitness, these components are also easy to administer requiring minimal equipment or facility needs."
Baumgartner said commander-driven physical fitness training is the backbone of the Air Force fitness program and an integral part of mission requirements.
"The [fitness assessment] provides commanders with a tool to assist in the determination of overall fitness of their military personnel," he said. "The current fitness assessment is science-based, incorporating health-based standards across fitness components."