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Airmen share tales of drastic dieting and lost careers

Apr. 2, 2013 - 04:14PM   |  
No one can escape the career-ending noose of the Air Force tape measure, not even a full colonel.
No one can escape the career-ending noose of the Air Force tape measure, not even a full colonel. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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No one can escape the career-ending noose of the Air Force tape measure, not even a full colonel. In a first-of-its-kind move since the service introduced strict standards for waist measurements, a wing commander was relieved of his command for failing his physical training test.

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No one can escape the career-ending noose of the Air Force tape measure, not even a full colonel. In a first-of-its-kind move since the service introduced strict standards for waist measurements, a wing commander was relieved of his command for failing his physical training test.

Enlisted airmen, who have borne the majority of PT-related discharges, say welcome to the club.

Col. Tim Bush of the 319th Air Base Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., said the Air Force was “fair and just” in removing him from command March 20 after failing the waist measurement component of the service fitness assessment.

The Air Force requires airmen, regardless of height or age, to have a waist circumference that does not exceed 39 inches for men, 35.5 inches for women. With 25 years under his belt, Bush has requested to retire.

But for some airmen, failing the waist measurement won't kick in a retirement request, but possible separation from the service.

Since the inception of the new standards in 2010, 1.5 percent of the total force, or just more than 6,500 airmen, have failed the waist measurement component of the test, according to Air Force Personnel Center statistics. In fiscal 2012, more than 1,300 airmen were discharged for failing to meet service fitness standards, a 400 percent increase since more rigorous standards were implemented. Headquarters Air Force data shows airmen in grades O3s to O5s and E6s are the least likely to score a 90 or better, which would allow them to take the test only once a year instead of every six months.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody has made looking into the make-or-break waist measure one of the top priorities.

“If we can't fix this thing in six months, we need to come to terms with the fact that it just may be too hard to fix, or it's not worth where we're putting all our energy to try to get rid of it,” Cody said in a Feb. 21 interview with Air Force Times.

If Cody is looking for horror stories of airmen who have been reprimanded, or worse demoted and booted, for missing the tape by a half inch, and of airmen slathering themselves in hemorrhoid cream and severely dehydrating themselves to be their slimmest at test time, he'll find them. Some airmen are so upset and stressed out by the waist measurement component, they shared their stories with us.

(Page 2 of 9)

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Ball

Flight Chief

Air Force Critical Care Flight

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Age: 41

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: Between 240 and 250 pounds

PT score: 91

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Ball is a fan of fitness standards. He thinks it's perfectly right for those standards to impact one's performance report and even the ability to be promoted, but he's not so supportive of those things hinging on whether he's an inch over the waist measurement, especially when the standards treat all airmen the same.

“It's frustrating,” he said. “I'm 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and 41 years old now, and I have airmen working for me who literally are almost a foot shorter and 20 pounds lighter who have to meet the same measurement. I'm struggling every six months and I'm worried.”

Ball said he's often worried his next PT test will be the one where he's taped a little too high or a little too low and he's a half-inch over because he has been unable to workout because of back surgery.

He said usually he can max out his pushups and situps and do well on the run, but like so many airmen, the waist measurement could be a tossup. And though he's actually managed to lose weight by controlling his diet, he's not certain he'll make the tape.

“I see these people who look like a bratwurst in their uniform, and it makes me furious,” he said. “Believe me, I want standards. I want people to look good in their uniforms, but with all these different body sizes, they can't all be held to one standard, especially when that standard is not completely an exact science. It seems unfair to put that on people's performance reports when it could affect their careers.”

Ball said he's happy Cody is going to take a look at it and said he would even be a fan of the Air Force returning to previous height and weight standards. If the person can't meet the standards after they've been through body fat testing, nutrition and weight-loss counseling, and other fitness measures, that would be the time to generate an EPR referral that could ultimately end someone's career.

(Page 3 of 9)

“If you fail a PT test, you may not be able to reenlist,” he said. “You could be discharged from the military. It can affect your career, and I have no problem with that. We're in the military and physical fitness is a condition for employment, but you've got to have a fair measurement.”

Tech. Sgt. Earl Hartlage Jr.

Kentucky National Guard

Age: 48

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 280 pounds

PT score: Failed

Tech. Sgt. Earl Hartlage Jr. is a month away from hitting the 20-year mark and it kind of sticks in his craw he might eventually retire without making master sergeant. All because of the waist measurement.

At 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 280 pounds, he's a big dude, which is not a bad thing for a security forces airman. Yet despite maxing out his situps and pushups, he failed the tape measure.

“Matter of fact, some of the younger guys, I'm even passing them on the run,” he said. “You can take my scores and give it to them and they could pass and I can't.”

Hartlage said it hasn't escaped his notice during deployments when he's easily carrying his equipment downrange, the skinny youngster is obviously struggling. But yet by Air Force standards, he's the one with the fitness problem.

“Who do you want to see at your gate representing and protecting you,” he asked. “You'll think twice before you do something against me versus someone skinny.”

If he's ever to have any hope of being promoted, or even going for more leadership training, it will come down to that one measurement, and that isn't fair to him or the Air Force, he said.

“When you've got a person who can do the job but because of that one thing, you're not going to let them stay in? You're kicking people out,” he said. “I've got a couple of more times to pass [the PT test] and I'm on a strict diet to try to pass it, but like I said, I've just a got a big frame. I do not have a really big gut or anything. I look good in my blues and my civilian clothes. I just can't pass the waist measurement. What's my incentive to do better? You're giving me a test I can't pass.”

(Page 4 of 9)

Hartlage said airmen in his same situation are going to extremes to shrink their waists and doing things, such as liposuction or using Preparation H and Saran Wrap, that could be as harmful as being overweight in the long run.

He said he'd like to see the Air Force either get rid of the waist measurement, or at the very least give commanders more leeway to retain airmen and not hold it against them if they fail simply because of the waist measurement.

“If the commander has a good employee, and he knows he's good and can do the job, and he's just failing that one thing, looks good in uniform, why are you going to fail him and kick him out of the Air Force?” he asked.

Staff Sgt. Seth Roese

Air Traffic Control Watch Supervisor

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

Age: 28

Height: 6-foot-2

Weight: Between 215 and 220 pounds for the last six or seven years

PT score: Passed (took the abdominal waist circumference measurement only)

Staff Sgt. Seth Roese said the waist measurement caused a PT failure on his record a year ago and he missed it by the smallest of measures — a half-inch.

But he's been fighting that failure ever since. He retook that PT test just a week later — a time frame in which he did not lose weight — and was determined to have a 36.5 inch waist, allowing him to pass easily with an 89.5.

Getting that previous test invalidated could be very important should he fail a fitness test in the next 24 months and that was a possibility, he said.

He was involved in a motorcycle accident and had to have surgery because of his injuries. That meant no working out for two months. He took the test last week and was measured at a 37-inch waist. When it was discovered that he was measured by someone in his squadron, a member of the Fitness Assessment Cell, re-measured him. His new measurement: 36.5.

Roese said the fact that two different people can measure him and get different results in the same day is a big problem.

“I understand this is only [a half inch] difference, that could be a difference of pass or fail for some people,” he said.

(Page 5 of 9)

Roese said he understands having a bigger waist might not look great in a uniform, but people shouldn't be punished in extenuating circumstances because they are medically unable to work out.

“If someone is able to complete the physical requirements of the PT test meeting all minimums and meeting the points needed, it shouldn't matter what the waist size is,” he said. “More than likely, if a person can pass those aspects their waist size will not be so large that they would not look good in uniform.”

Chris Dean

Separated Aug. 24, as a technical sergeant

Age: 36

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 280 pounds at time of discharge

PT score: 28.8

The new Air Force standards cost former Tech Sgt. Chris Dean a 15-year career.

He rode the wave of medical profiles for years because of a damaged toe on his right foot, a chipped bone spur and the surgeries he had to correct those problems. When he discovered a medication was causing him more harm than good, he stopped taking it and came off the profile. He failed the first full PT test he'd taken since 2001.

He would continue to fail the test three more times, placing himself on the chopping block, but because of his stellar record as an airman he was given another chance. He finally managed to pass the test, but keeping his waist line trim was still a struggle.

“I busted my hump and I still had a 38.5 inch waist,” he said. “I was cutting calories like crazy, working out six days a week, two to three hours a day. I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing, eating right and all of that, but it didn't matter because they think the waist tape measurement is the end-all, be-all when not everybody is the same frame size.”

Dean did all the legendary tricks in the unwritten handbook of getting skinny for Air Force PT. He even went so far as to order his Preparation H from Canada because that country still uses the original formula with a live yeast cell derivative, removed in 1995.

“That's how desperate I was,” he said. “I was so stressed out about it. That made it worse for me because I didn't sleep at all that night because I had this Saran Wrap wrapped around me. I tried everything.”

(Page 6 of 9)

Dean, who worked in cyber transport before he left the service, said he also had sleep apnea and a thyroid condition. He was tired — physically from lack of sleep and cutting calories and mentally from playing what he considered a game.

“I'm not going to say I wasn't unhealthy, because I was,” he said. “But I was doing my best to get better. I was taking responsibility for it and not wanting to be one of those people who rides the system and look where I'm at now. I lost my career because I didn't want to play the game.”

He said he believes that if he'd stayed on his medical profile, he'd probably still be in the Air Force, but he's not looking back now that he rejoined civilian life. Dean works for a school system.

“Not having the stress of having to deal with failing a PT test and having to retest every 90 days, or testing every 6 months — it's done wonders for my health in that sense,” he said. “I understand it's a requirement of the job, but you're already dealing with enough stress. You work longer hours. You're away from your family, and on top of that you've got to take this test. They're weighing the components, in my opinion, incorrectly.”

Technical Sergeant

Air Force Reserves

Age: 51 years old

Height: 6-foot-2

Weight: Under 190 pounds

PT score: 95.6

Missing the tape by one inch was a heartbreaker for a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, who asked his name be kept anonymous. To tell you how well he was doing when he failed his PT test, you only have to look at his overall score. He was eight points away from an excellent score, but the average of his abdominal circumference wouldn't budge below 40.

“Because of that one inch, I failed and got a letter of counseling over it,” he said. “I'm 51 years old. It's harder for someone my age to maintain a 39-inch waist versus someone who is 18. There is no variance for age. It's 39 inches whether you're 18 or 60.”

The reservist, who stands at 6-foot-2, said he was working on his health when he failed in October. He weighed about 211 pounds at the time and has since gotten his weight and his waist down. He even scored 95.6 on his last test and is exempt from taking the PT test for another year, but he said before anyone congratulates him as the poster boy for Air Force fitness, he should be considered an exception and not a rule.

(Page 7 of 9)

“They want us to be ‘Fit to Fight' and I'm all for that, but that one inch off my waist wouldn't have made a difference of whether I could pull a guy off the battlefield,” he said. “I think there should be some motivation to stay fit, but being one inch off shouldn't hurt somebody's career.”

The technical sergeant said he's taken his PT test with airmen in his age bracket who clearly have beer bellies and are a disgrace to their uniform. But he said those airmen are usually failing the PT test in some other way even if they manage to survive the waist measurement. And if the person manages to stay in, the commander is likely looking the other way.

“There needs to be some allowance,” he said. “If the waist measurement is 45 and the standard is 39, then maybe that airman needs a write-up. I think there's a place for the waist measurement, but I think it carries way too much weight. This hard-and-fast rule that 39 is passing, 39.25 and you're done, with no consideration of the test as a whole is too much.”

Female Technical Sergeant

Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

Age: 31 years old

Height: 5-foot-9

Weight: 182 lbs.

PT score: 87.2

The decision of whether or not to have children and when to do it is something that affects the career of most every female airman. But for one female technical sergeant at Shaw Air Force Base, who asked to remain anonymous, those questions are fraught with even more pressure because of the waist measurement.

The airman, who had her only son eight years ago, said she's afraid to have more children because it might cost her career. She suffered from severe preeclampsia during her pregnancy, as well as liver and kidney failure. Working out wasn't possible and the medication she took packed on the pounds. She failed the first PT test after her son was born.

The thought of expanding her family, only to lose her job, terrifies her.

“I never intended to have just one child,” she said. “I want to have more children, but I'm scared because I don't know what's going to happen. I'm too far in my Air Force career, and I've worked too hard to get to this point.”

(Page 8 of 9)

With 13½ years behind her, she goes through a strict ritual of Preparation H and Saran Wrap, water pills and taking a sauna for several hours before her test to make sure her stomach does not exceed 35.5 inches.

She admits she's dehydrated by test time, but ensuring she passes makes it all worth it.

The technical sergeant said she would move forward with her career and growing her family if there was a revised waist standard for women who have had children, but doesn't know how likely that is to happen since she has co-workers who have had multiple babies but managed to return to their pre-baby “stick figures” with ease. She's also seen the other extreme where people got liposuction and tummy tucks and had to fend off medical problems related to those procedures.

“I truly wish this component could be removed,” she said.

Senior Airman Melissa Burns

Spectrum manager at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany

Age: 35 years old

Height: 5-foot-5

Weight: declined to say

PT score: Failed (tested on abdominal circumference only)

Senior Airman Melissa Burns knows exactly what it's like to expand your family and have your body change. She's a mother of four and being sick with her last daughter came not only with a new baby but 100 additional pounds.

Because of the multiple pregnancies and a tumor in her ankle that kept her from running, she's been on a series of medical profiles since she was injured nine years ago. In addition, her stomach muscles were injured, so she's unable to suck in her stomach as airmen tend to do when they're having their waist measured.

But until the Air Force introduced the waist measurement, she was still passing the PT test through a combination of gutting out the other components and the walk test.

To stay within the waist regulations she starved herself. Though she wasn't supposed to run, she did boot camp sometimes three times a day, restricted her calories severely to 700 a day and worked out in a suit designed to make her sweat more. And she once passed out during a workout session.

(Page 9 of 9)

“The whole time I was PT testing, I cried,” she said. “You see a lot of people doing that here.”

When her leg started swelling up, it was discovered her tumor had returned and she was no longer deployable. A medical board was initiated and she was granted a severance. Burns, then a staff sergeant, initially was going to appeal for medical retirement given her injuries, but found herself facing an abdominal circumference-only test, even as her discharge paperwork was being worked through the system.

She failed the test and was demoted. She said she was told she would be tested as long as she was in the Air Force and the service was not going to pay for her to have liposuction or a tummy tuck as long as she was facing a medical discharge. Seeing no other options, she opted to take the severance instead.

“They're making me do remedial PT,” she said. “It doesn't matter if I'm injured. I couldn't handle any more.”

Burns said the waist measurement simply isn't a good indicator of fitness.

“They want people to be frail,” she said. “If we go to war and I get shot, a frail person isn't going to be able to carry me. I've seen people who have no body fat, who are bodybuilders, fail. If they exceed the tape measurement, they get kicked out.”

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