Earlier this month, the Army’s top doctors said 15 percent of troops, or about one in seven, could not be deployed for medical reasons. The number is higher in the Army Reserve, where roughly one in three are physically unfit for overseas service.
“This has begun to erode the readiness of the Army as a whole,” the Army’s surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Eric Shoomaker, said during the annual Association of the U.S. Army meeting in Washington.
Those concerns are being addressed at Fort Gordon, where daily physical training has been tailored to avoid injuries and prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat.
On a cold morning last week, soldiers fresh out of basic training warmed up their muscles before getting into a more rigorous workout. First Sgt. Joe Birkhead, who rolled on the ground with them, said the idea is to avoid stretching cold muscles. Easing into the stretches avoids tears and other injuries on endurance runs, such as shin splints, he explained.
Those kinds of musculoskeletal injuries make up the majority of medical reasons troops can’t deploy. According to Maj. Gen. Richard Stone, the deputy surgeon general for mobilization, the Army diagnoses and treats more than a million soldiers with such injuries each year. That’s the equivalent of more than 25 million limited-duty days and 68,000 soldiers on limited duty.
The challenges are greater for part-time soldiers. Only about 70 percent of National Guard and Reserve soldiers are physically fit for service, according to figures released Oct. 11.
“Admittedly there are some challenges given that we do not have access to our soldiers 24/7 the way our Active Component brethren do,” Maj. Angel Wallace, a media relations officer for the Army Reserve, said in an e-mail.
To improve those numbers, a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, which blends tailored physical fitness programs with emotional and mental strengthening classes, has been implemented. It includes a Web-based Global Assessment Tool, which gives feedback on progress and links soldiers with programs that will improve their specific weaknesses.
Wallace said that even after 10 years of persistent war, soldiers continue to enlist and re-enlist, “knowing that physical well-being is a part of the total Soldier package.”
At Fort Gordon, 1st Sgt. Eric Blount said physical training on post is designed to meet the specific needs soldiers will have in combat. The focus is more on sprinting, for instance, than long runs because that’s what soldiers need to be ready to do when a Humvee comes under attack. Exercises also focus on crouching and building the strength needed for toting heavy rucksacks, radios and batteries.
Brig. Gen. Brian Lein, the command surgeon at U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said in a news release that the new nine-month deployment cycle will only add to the stress of commanding officers trying to fill vacancies in their units.
“If we don’t get our arms around the non-deployable population … we’re going to have a significant problem manning our units to get them to go downrange,” he said. “The soldier is the center of our formations, so if the soldier is not ready to go, then the unit is not ready to go.”