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Tape test protest: One Marine takes his body-fat fight to the top

Aug. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Emboldened by mounting evidence of the tape test's inaccuracy, Staff Sgt. Jeff Smith has launched a grassroots effort to push for a change.
Emboldened by mounting evidence of the tape test's inaccuracy, Staff Sgt. Jeff Smith has launched a grassroots effort to push for a change. (Josh Gaede)
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BCP breakdown

Thousands of Marines end up in the Body Composition Program every year, but the numbers dipped noticeably from 2011 to 2012, when approximately 3 percent of the active-duty force received a BCP assignment. The numbers:
2011:

7,162 BCP assignments
186 related discharges
2012:

6,076 BCP assignments
132 related discharges
Note: No data is available yet for 2013.
Source: Marine Corps

When Staff Sgt. Jeff Smith was assigned to the Marine Corps' Body Composition Program in 2009, he knew what to expect. After all, he helped run the exercise portion of his unit's BCP a few years prior.

When Staff Sgt. Jeff Smith was assigned to the Marine Corps' Body Composition Program in 2009, he knew what to expect. After all, he helped run the exercise portion of his unit's BCP a few years prior.

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When Staff Sgt. Jeff Smith was assigned to the Marine Corps’ Body Composition Program in 2009, he knew what to expect. After all, he helped run the exercise portion of his unit’s BCP a few years prior.

The insults from peers and jokes about laying off the Twinkies and Ho-Hos rankled Smith even more because he was done in by the notorious tape test, which measured him at 20 percent body fat — just over the limit — when a caliper pinch test typically gauged him well within regulations at 16 percent. Having at the time suffered a shoulder injury, Smith knew he had put extra weight on his 5-foot-11, 211-pound frame. But he never felt like he fell out of fighting shape, proof of which, he says, is his respectable showing in the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon: four hours and 22 minutes.

Smith taped within regs again only weeks after his six-month BCP assignment ended, but the adverse mark on his personnel record continues to haunt him, he said. His daughters ask, “Why I don’t get promoted,” Smith, a 17-year Marine, told Marine Corps Times. “I said, ‘Because the Marine Corps says Daddy is fat.’ ”

The 38-year-old is assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36 in Okinawa, Japan. And he says he is fed up with seeing good Marines penalized because they don’t fit the ideal Marine Corps fitness profile and their neck-to-waist measurement ratio exceeds regulations — even if other fat-measuring tests indicate they are below the threshold.

Now, emboldened by growing evidence of the tape test’s inaccuracy, Smith is on a mission to see it abolished. His quest started this spring with a White House petition requesting a formal review coupled with a vocal grassroots campaign to agitate for change. Next, he plans to request mast and plead his case to senior leaders. Finally, Smith has the ear of at least one congressman,who says that while standards are important, so too is fairness.

His story is no anomaly. Of the 194,000 Marines on active duty, 27,000 have at one time or another required a tape test after failing to make weight, according to data from personnel officials. That’s 14 percent of the force. Certainly, not all are out of standards — but plenty have at least toed the line.

At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sgt. Giovanny Tricoche-Rodriguez was assigned to the BCP in August, even though he maintains a grueling fitness regimen and aspires to compete in body-building competitions. The 27-year-old from 2nd Maintenance Battalion has a skinny neck and stacked physique, but the tape test measures him at 21 percent body fat. A professional seven-point caliper reading gauges him at 7.2, he said.

“A lot of the body builder types I see in the gym, a few of them have the same issue being put on BCP,” he said. “If you have abs, if you have lower lats, if you have a nice thick muscular back, you’re in trouble.”

Tricoche-Rodriguez used to do neck exercises in an effort to build its circumference, but to no avail. Now, facing an adverse fitness mark and the stigma of being a BCP Marine, he doesn’t know what to do.

It’s an extreme case of tape-test inaccuracy, Smith said, but one example in which squared-away Marines don’t deserve to fail the Corps’ fitness standards.

“We are processing out, according to the studies I’ve read, Marines who are 12 percent body fat or 14 percent actual,” he said. “In their mind, they believe they failed. The shame of that, I can only imagine what they deal with. I’m just baffled that I’m the only one speaking up.”

Smith hopes that soon will change. He works out on base wearing neon green T-shirts declaring in all capital letters: “Tape test is inaccurate!We can change it. Ask me how.”

Smith is at the base gym seven days a week, he said, and the shirts have generated a steady trickle of conversation with Marines who, like him, are invested in fitness and want to see a better system implemented.

Life in the BCP

Marines are assigned to the BCP if they fail to meet physical standards for their age and gender. Those who don’t meet standards at weigh-in are at the mercy of the tape test.

The neck-to-waist measurement ratio — for women, the hips are also measured — needs to yield body fat below 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women. Those outside regs land in the BCP for six months, where physical training to get back within standards becomes a primary duty.

If Marines can’t meet physical standards following two more tests — and a year on the BCP — they are processed out of the Marine Corps. However, many see the initial BCP assignment as a kiss of death for their careers. The adverse fitness remark represents a barrier to further promotion. And the stigma of being a “fatbody” can be demoralizing, Smith said.

“People say, ‘Hey, if you don’t like it, get out.’ ‘Hey, stop eating donuts,’ ” he said. “You’re just looking at this guy and judging him.”

Today, much of Smith’s motivation to kill the tape test comes from his experience working with the program. In 2007, while stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Smith volunteered to lead physical training for a BCP group as a way to stay fit and motivated while holding down an administrative job during the day.

He did away with the gibes and ridicule and implemented tailored workouts to meet Marines’ individual fitness needs. In the process, he got a better sense of who the denizens of the BCP really were.

“Not everyone on there is lazy; some of them are ignorant. Some don’t eat but one time a day,” Smith said, indicating that misguided dieting habits may be doing some Marines in. Then, he said, there are the fit guys who are doomed by their stature.

“I had a guy out there that ran, he was a big kid. One of the fastest quarter-mile, 400-meter runners that I had seen on the base. He was extremely athletic, gifted, but also cursed with a big build.”

When Smith ended his work with the program, he was sure of one thing: Not everyone on the BCP deserved to be there.

Tape test discredited

With the tape test standing between big Marines and the BCP, experts agree some are likely getting shafted. In May, Marine Corps Times measured 10 service members using the tape test and a hydrostatic dunk tank, considered one of the most accurate methods to gauge body fat. Variation between the two measurement methods ranged from nearly 12 percent to a staggering 66 percent — and in most cases, the dunk tank yielded a lower result. One female Army staff sergeant taped consistently at 32 percent body fat, barely within service standards, but the dunk tank gauged her at 21.

Even if such extreme disparities are rare, Marine officials admit the tape test method is inexact. A 2002 Marine Corps order laying out the tape test measuring method as it is still implemented today notes that the “circumference-based method” respresents the “best approach that can be applied with minimal error (+/- 3 to 4 percent).”

But when that margin of error means the difference between 16 percent body fat and a career-ending 20 percent, it doesn’t seem so minimal. And it looks bad, even when not competing with high-tech or expensive measuring systems.

“The tape measurement system used by the BCP to determine a Marine’s body fat percentage is the least accurate of all methods currently being utilized in the medical world,” Capt. J.D. Anzevino wrote in a 2006 position paper for the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va.

The officer’s recommendation? A $19.95 caliper, which when used correctly is accurate to within 1.1 percent of the $100-per-session hydrostatic dunk tank, Anzevino concluded.

Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and military fitness guru, said the tape test can give faulty readings, but he doubts the military would change its fat-testing system overnight.

“The science behind it, things have changed so much that it really is an outdated way of taking your body fat percentage,” he said. Staff Sgt. Smith is right, he added, “as far as there may be people way under the body percentage test that are failing because of their body fat proportions. Can it be changed? I hope so.”

But as budget cuts force the Marine Corps to shed manpower, the timing may not be ideal for a campaign to protect those on the brink, the former SEAL said. “You don’t want to toy with a borderline. Because whenever there’s a downsize occurring, everything has teeth. It’s nothing to play around with if you want to stay in.”

Being heard

Smith next plans to request mast, a process that allows any Marine with a grievance to appear before his or her unit commander to ask for resolution. While Marines have a right to request an audience with any commander up to the commanding general of their parent unit, Marine Corps leadership has no obligation to fulfill a request to speak with the commandant, as Smith wants. However, according to regulations, Smith could be granted the privilege of bringing his cause before the commandant upon a recommendation by the commander of Marine Corps Bases Japan, Lt. Gen. John Wissler.

While Corps policy protects a Marine who requests mast from professional retribution, many Marines still fear that “skylining” themselves by taking such a step will lead to unwanted visibility that could jeopardize their reputations or endanger their careers.

Smith said he is committed to his cause beyond worrying about what other Marines will think, though some tried to get him into trouble after his White House petition was published online.

“Someone took a photo and sent it to ... my entire chain of command,” Smith said of the petition, which garnered less than 2 percent of the signatures he needed to elicit a response from the Obama administration. “I thought, ‘You would have done me a lot better if you sent it to the entire Marine Corps.’ ”

Smith also hopes to enlist the support of health and fitness experts with knowledge of the military, and he has written to lawmakers from his home state of California. He received a short but promising response from Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a major in the Marine Reserve who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

A spokesman for Hunter, Joe Kasper, said the congressman is looking into the matter. Hunter knows the military needs to maintain rigorous fitness standards, and that there must be a threshold, Kasper said. But, he added, it is important to have an accurate means of measuring body fat.

The Corps has little interest in exploring new options. Brian McGuire, the service’s physical readiness programs officer, said the tape test meets requirements for cost and portability in a way other methods do not. Skin calipers, he noted, may be portable, but they require “a great deal of training and have a higher degree of intra- and inter-rater variance than do other methods, including the circumference technique.”

Likewise, the other military services, all of which use a variation of the tape test to gauge body fat, have been noncommittal about making a change.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia acknowledged there are “outliers” whose measurements are skewed by the tape test, and said he’d like to be able to provide highly accurate hydrostatic testing for every service member. Nevertheless, he said, “in an era of sequestration and austerity, it’s just not possible to put 320,000 enlisted sailors and officers through that right now.”

The Army has in fact moved to apply the tape test more rigorously, eliminating loopholes for all Army commands and giving commanding officers three working days to “flag” a soldier who fails to make tape.

Smith’s best bet may be others like him who are frustrated with the system and willing to take a professional risk to speak up: Marines like Tricoche-Rodriguez, the aspiring bodybuilder on the BCP. While originally leery of the consequences of speaking out, Tricoche-Rodriguez said he is planning to request mast to his battalion commander to protest a system he believes is unjust.

“Wrong is wrong,” he said. “And if you feel strongly about something, you need to talk about it.”

Staff writer Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.

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