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Strength and stamina - Combat fitness test measures Marine readiness

Ask Marines deployed aboard the USS Iwo Jima what they think of a new Marine Corps test to assess their combat fitness, and one might be surprised by the lack of complaining.

After two deployments to Iraq, Sgt. Richard Williams said he’s seen firsthand the importance of both strength and stamina that the new combat fitness test will assess. Williams, a machine gunner with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, remembers running across danger areas in Fallujah, Iraq, loaded to the hilt with combat gear and ammunition.

“If you can’t keep up, you’re dead weight to that squad,” he told American Forces Press Service as he and the rest of the Iwo Jima strike group transited toward the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. “You’ve got to be fit, because it’s not just for you. It’s for the team.”

Williams’ sentiment echoed loudly throughout the 26th MEU as the Marines geared up for the new combat fitness test being phased in throughout the Corps. The test was to be fully implemented by Sept. 30 as a supplement to the standard physical fitness test.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway ordered the new test to replicate more closely the demands Marines are likely to face downrange. They’ll run a timed 800-yard run, repeatedly lift a 30-pound ammunition can for two minutes, then maneuver through a 300-yard course that requires them to conduct a combat crawl, ammunition resupply, body drag, casualty carry and grenade throw.

The entire test will be conducted in combat boots and utility uniforms.

Col. Mark Desens, the 26th MEU commander, said the test represents heavy emphasis being put on fitness for all ground troops - not just those performing infantry and other highly physical missions. A truck driver running a convoy route, for example, needs to be as ready as the infantrymen he’s supporting to respond to an attack and, if necessary, to drag a buddy to safety.

“This combat fitness test is a result of those exact experiences and ensuring that regardless of their jobs, all Marines are physically able to handle themselves in combat,” he said.

But Desens said physical fitness is just half of what the new test will deliver. “It’s also about the mental piece, and the confidence that comes with it,” he said. A Marine who goes into combat knowing he’s well-trained, well-equipped and fit for the mission - and that his buddy is equally prepared and can get him to safety or medical help if necessary - is better able to focus on the mission, he said.

“You fight harder and you fight more confidently and you are focused on defeating the enemy, not on [wondering], ‘Is today the day that a bad letter is going to go back home?’” Desens said. “So it is mental as much as physical.”

Staff Sgt. Vedel Poindexter, a black-belt martial arts instructor with the 26th MEU, said he likes the idea of a test that assesses Marines’ combat fitness.

“It’s a lot more realistic and geared toward the things Marines would actually do in combat,” he said. “You’re sprinting. You’re manipulating your buddy. You’re doing a combat drag. And we’re going to be tested the way we fight — in uniform.”

Staff Sgt. William Korth, platoon sergeant for Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon, said he has no delusions that the new test is going to be easy. “It’s definitely going to be tough,” he said, noting that performing well requires speed and strength, as well as endurance. “I think this is going to weed out the weak.”

After two combat deployments, Staff Sgt. Angel Alejandre, Golf Company’s machine gun section leader, said the test will measure the exact capabilities Marines need in combat.

“You never know when you are going to have to sprint 500 meters with combat gear to chase an insurgent or support someone else,” he said. “This test ensures we train the way we fight. Overall, I think it will be good for the Marine Corps.”

The Army, too, is putting increased emphasis on fitness to ensure soldiers’ combat readiness.

“Fitness has gone beyond just passing the PT test,” Army Col. Timothy Touzinsky, chief of staff for the Joint Multinational Training Command, said in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The command ensures U.S. European Command’s 45,000 soldiers remain combat-ready.

“It’s how to survive the rigors of the combat zone: the extreme heat, the gear we wear, the weapons we carry, the [body armor] we wear, the long hours and the stress,” he said. “It all takes a toll on soldiers, and the more fit they are going into a combat zone, the better they are going to be able to sustain themselves there.”

As a result, the Army has integrated fitness training into soldiers’ regular training schedules.

“The reality of the [operational tempo] and the reality on soldiers now is that physical fitness and nutrition is integral into their day. They do PT every day,” Touzinsky said. “Staying fit is a mission. We have got to be ready for that next deployment.”

Meanwhile, new approaches are maximizing the benefits of the training offered, he said. Mass formation runs have become a thing of the past, except for rare ceremonial events. Soldiers now train in small groups based on ability that push troops to capacity or beyond. Meanwhile, more training has moved indoors, taking advantage of high-tech weight-training and aerobic equipment.

“No longer do you just do push-ups, sit-ups and a three-mile run,” Touzinsky said. “These guys are going at it smart. They are training for strength. They are training for stamina. They are training aerobically, [and] they are training anaerobically so they can do it all.”

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