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Official report: Fix PT now

Investigators call for big changes to restore ‘culture of fitness'

Jan. 14, 2013 - 08:45AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 14, 2013 - 08:45AM  |  
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A Navy report found that improvements to the Physical Readiness Test, including random testing and command PT, could help cultivate a year-round "culture of fitness."
A Navy report found that improvements to the Physical Readiness Test, including random testing and command PT, could help cultivate a year-round "culture of fitness." (MCSN Declan Barnes / Navy)
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UNITS STUDIED IN PT AUDIT

The Naval Audit Service evaluated fitness attitudes and health records at 12 commands — six sea and six shore of varying sizes and missions — during PT test cycles in 2010 and 2011 In all, 5,914 sailors were attached to those ships and shore commands, but the audit used a sample of only 839. The commands:
Sea
• Aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, 2,872 personnel, 130 in sample.
• Amphibious assault ship Wasp, 987 personnel, 100 in sample.
• Cruiser Cape St. George, 296 personnel, 70 in sample.
• Destroyer The Sullivans, 271 personnel, 70 in sample.
• Destroyer Ross, 251 personnel, 70 in sample.
• Frigate Underwood, 174 personnel, 63 in sample.
Shore
• Fleet Readiness Center Southwest, 624 personnel, 79 in sample.
• Naval Legal Service Office Mid-Atlantic, 88 personnel, 53 in sample.
• Strike Group Ocean Team, 106 personnel, 56 in sample.
• Commander, Navy Region Southeast, 70 personnel, 45 in sample.
• Trident Training Facility Kings Bay, Ga., 96 personnel, 54 in sample.
• Commander, Navy Region Southwest, 79 personnel, 49 in sample.
Source: Naval Audit Service

More

Random physical readiness tests. Mandatory unit PT. Better incentives for in-shape sailors.

These radical changes, and more, should be implemented to improve the Navy's so-called "culture of fitness," presently lacking across the fleet, a Navy investigation has found.

Commands do not take physical training seriously enough, and leaders' attitudes put their sailors' health at risk and hurt readiness, http://www.navytimes.com/links/PTaudit">according to the analysis by the Naval Audit Service, published in 2012 and obtained by Navy Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

There's also a lack of accountability across the fleet when it comes to personal fitness, and sailors don't have enough incentive to work beyond a minimum level of fitness, the report found.

And perhaps most distressing, some medical records and screening processes tied to fitness were deemed out of sorts, resulting in safety gaps that could kill sailors during workouts.

Investigators drew these conclusions after examining six sea commands and six shore commands during their spring and fall PT test cycles in 2010 and the spring cycle in 2011. In all, 5,914 sailors were involved. The audit was called after the Naval Safety Center raised concern over a series of PT-related sailor deaths in 2010.

"While we found that the Navy's Physical Readiness Program was being implemented at commands reviewed, it was implemented inconsistently in a way that may affect readiness and operational effectiveness," the report says. "In addition, the Navy's fitness culture did not maximize sustained individual physical readiness. As a result, the Navy runs the risk of additional physical training-related mishaps, such as the five deaths that were identified in Fiscal Year 2010 as physical training related."

Navy Times in December issued a callout to sailors, asking for ways the service could improve fitness in the fleet. Many echoed concerns and expressed ideas also found in the audit.

"I can say with confidence that the fleet does not see physical fitness as a priority," said Damage Controlman 1st Class (SW/AW) Mike Penny, at Naval Base Point Loma, Calif. "Over the years, I have prioritized my own fitness, sometimes bordering on insubordination to get in a workout. But the fact is, the bottom line is, what's important in the surface fleet. And sailors' physical, mental and emotional fitness only become a priority once it becomes a ‘problem.' Sadly, the Navy ‘culture of fitness' is failing."

Navy brass, however, is pushing back against the report. Top leaders say the program does a good job of getting sailors to maintain a level of fitness that keeps the service mission-ready and healthy.

It doesn't need any significant changes, either, they said, and many safety issues are already being addressed.

"In terms of looking at … what our current program is achieving for our force in terms of fitness and in terms of how our force looks, I see no reason right now to change the program," said Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the chief of naval personnel, during an interview with Navy Times in December.

The Navy has always wanted its people in shape, but it didn't hold them truly accountable until 2005, when it started kicking out those sailors who failed three physical fitness assessments in four years. And, over recent years, the Navy has indeed gotten tougher, reducing the ways in which sailors could receive waivers that would buy them more time to get fit or allow them to retake the test.

Since 2007, more than 8,600 sailors have been kicked out for failing the PFA under these rules.

But the Navy's efforts haven't been enough, investigators determined.

Fixing the culture

Officials with the Naval Audit Service, whose mission it is to make sure programs and offices across the Navy use best management practices, did not return requests for comment regarding their findings. But the report did include a list of recommended action items. Here's a closer look at those the investigators said would foster a stronger culture of Navy fitness:

• Random testing. Auditors recommended the Navy start randomly testing sailors to make sure they are within body composition assessment and physical readiness test standards. This is in addition to the biannual PFA.

Such a change would be a shock to many sailors, especially those in the "3-mile club," who only run two times a year — for the PRT.

Sailors who spoke to Navy Times endorsed the idea of random testing.

"I can't tell you how many times people will fast the week before a PFA in order to pass the weight maximum, or start running two weeks prior," said Capt. Joel Rothschild, a member of the 3rd Fleet Joint Maritime Component Commander Reserve Unit. "These are both bad for the individual's health and fail to achieve the real objective."

Despite the audit's recommendation, Rear Adm. Tony Kurta, director of military personnel plans and policy, said random PRTs are "not on the table" at this time.

• Command PT. If fitness is not a priority in a unit, much of the blame falls on the command leaders, the audit states. If fitness is truly important at a command, then exercise time will be included in the "plans of the day," auditors determined.

The audit said that at a third of the commands reviewed, the mission requirements took priority at the cost of physical training — as it should be, many would argue. However, two of the 12 commands didn't allow time for command PT during the workday, a practice that clashes with Navy regulations. These commands were not named in the report.

"If fitness is not actively promoted, sailors may not have an opportunity to meet the required program standards, thus placing them at risk for administrative separation," the audit found.

It also says commands should be held accountable for how they approach fitness. "Develop a set of performance measures and provide continuing oversight to ensure all commands integrate physical training into the work week," the audit states.

Kurta disputed the finding and said commanding officers are already held responsible.

"I would argue you can't have an operationally effective combat-ready command if your personnel aren't physically fit and ready. We hold everybody accountable for their readiness," he said.

Even so, some sailors said they've never seen their COs, executive officers or command master chiefs PT-ing, thereby setting a bad example. Conversely, those sailors who served at commands where fitness was a big deal praised their leaders and those billets.

In 2006, command PT was a regular occurrence at Navy Information Operations Command in Yokosuka, Japan, said retired Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 1st Class Justina Baldwin (SW/AW).

"That was an amazing command with little PT failures. We worked out as a group and then were granted time to get ready for work," she said. "I so miss that command, as it was the best shape I was ever in."

• PT incentives. The audit also said a sailor's score on the PFA — satisfactory, good, excellent or outstanding — should be included in the sailor's fitness report or evaluation as a way to encourage sailors to work harder.

Sailors agreed that more incentives should be offered to PT studs.

"The Navy must find a better way to reward sailors for doing well on the PRT," said Lt. Cmdr. David Gardner, at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 4 in Oklahoma. "It doesn't make any sense to give outstanding, excellent, etc., grades if those grades don't provide incentives besides getting entered into a database."

And a better recognition for fit sailors has another benefit, said Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Fuels) (AW/SW) William Maloney, on the carrier John C. Stennis.

"This makes it competitive and fun," he said.

But Kurta said mandating the inclusion of a sailor's performance is unnecessary. COs have the discretion to include this detail, as well as any other fitness-related matter, in the sailor's fitrep or eval, where they can include written comments about any aspect of a sailor's performance.

Additionally, evals and fitreps already indicate that a sailor meets the minimum fitness standard.

"In the end, the real incentive is our own personal health," Kurta added.

• NEC for CFLs. The audit also called for the establishment of a naval enlisted classification for the command fitness leader instead of a collateral duty. In other words, make the job a documented skill that, while not a rating, has clearly defined standards and training requirements.

The audit reasoned that having a NEC would "ensure command-level physical readiness programs are properly managed."

But Kurta said CFLs are well-trained and can handle their duties.

Sailors pointed out that cheating is all too common.

There needs to be more accountability and impartiality when it comes to fitness, said Chief Operations Specialist (SW) Marico Myhand, based in Yokosuka.

"Just as we have an [afloat training group] or INSURV team to come out and certify a command for readiness, why not have the same system for physical readiness?" he said.

Some sailors recommended impartial PRT coordinators, perhaps sailors from nearby commands or civilians hired to administer the test.

And Aviation Machinist's Mate 1st Class Dustin Buterbaugh, a CFL on the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower who has also been a CFL at three other commands, said that despite efforts to keep the test honest, higher-ups sometimes skip the rules.

"There are always people turning a blind eye to my scoring and marking to help their command scores," he said.

Sailors with health risks

The Navy's fitness initiatives fell under the Navy Audit Service's scrutiny after five sailors died in PT-related incidents in fiscal 2010, the most in three years. The Naval Safety Center flagged these mishaps as an area of concern in an audit service customer survey.

Since then, seven more sailors have died during workouts.

Investigators sought to determine whether there were ways to reduce such casualties. They concluded a significant problem was that the Navy "inconsistently" monitored whether sailors were fit to take part in physical readiness evaluations. Sailors with health risks were falling through the cracks and exercising when they could face injury or even death.

The audit outlined steps the Navy could take to "mitigate the risk of mishaps." These included making sure sailors are excluded from the PFA if they don't have an up-to-date periodic health assessment. These annual medical appointments, or PHAs, are required of active-duty and Reserve sailors and are designed to identify health problems so they can be treated before they worsen.

CFLs are supposed to stop sailors from participating in the test if they don't have the required screening, and missing the PFA for this reason could count as a failure. However, the audit found that CFLs weren't always aware that a sailor didn't pass the PHA.

At selected commands surveyed during the first cycle of testing in 2011, investigators found 30 percent of sailors had either outdated or missing PHAs.

The problem, investigators found, was spotty communication between two databases. One database stores PFA information, including health assessments, while the other, the Physical Readiness Information Management System, is used by CFLs to run a command fitness program and enter and track fitness information, including PRT scores. In 2010, these databases were connected to readily share sailor data. If a sailor had failed to complete the PHA, a CFL would be notified. But the audit found the system was plagued with glitches. Information sharing between the databases worked only 74 percent of the time, the audit found.

Kurta said improvements have been made since then, and that the two databases do a better job of flagging at-risk sailors.

But these database problems were not the only screening tool the audit deemed unreliable. Before the fitness test and all command workouts, CFLs are required to administer the Physical Activity Risk Factor Questionnaire, a list of 13 yes-or-no questions about health.

For example, it asks sailors if anyone in their family has died from a heart condition, or if they feel pain in their chest when doing physical activity.

A "yes" answer to any of eight questions about cardio health signals an elevated risk of a heart problem, and any sailor who answers that way is supposed to be referred to a health care provider for clearance.

But the questionnaires are flawed, the audit found.

In the three cycles auditors examined, anywhere from 47 percent to 83 percent of sailors with heart problems conducted the PFA without getting proper medical clearance first.

Part of this was failure of the CFLs. But another problem is: Sailors might lie when answering the questionnaire, the audit said.

"We determined that the potential for fraud exists if members are not truthful about their medical conditions to stay in the Navy," the audit says.

The auditors did not give recommendations on how to keep sailors from lying about their health.

Too much change?

One change outlined in the audit was moot — because the Navy already corrected the problem.

In summer 2011, before auditors released their final report, the Navy released new fitness rules that no longer let sailors who were new to a command skip the test if their arrival was less than 10 weeks before a scheduled PFA.

Officials reasoned that sailors should always be in shape and shouldn't need the extra time.

In recent times, Navy officials have been averse to big changes when it comes to Navy fitness.

While the rules may not be perfect, leaders say they seem to be working. They view the fleet as much fitter than the old days, when chiefs were seen sporting spare tires, a doughnut in one hand and a cigarette in another.

The Navy ruled out wholesale changes to the PRT last year. The service had considered nine new exercises and tested 173 sailors, but decided that the current three-exercise battery of situps, pushups and a 1.5-mile run meets its needs.

Juan Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, told sailors in Bahrain early last year, "We want to move away from a culture of testing, where sailors cram for their PRT twice a year, to a culture of fitness, where sailors are fit to fight 365 days a year."

"We want to maximize mission readiness … instilling that culture of fitness," he said in an interview with Navy Times in November. "You've seen this evolution, this series of policies over the last decade to maximize this."

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