In one checkout aisle, customers see nothing but cigarettes. The other aisle is lined with mini liquor bottles.
“They’re super cute. My kids always say they want one,” complains Amy Cates, and not just because she’s a concerned mom who does her grab-and-go shopping at this convenience store. Cates serves as the community readiness and resiliency integrator for U.S. Army Garrison Italy, in Vicenza, and it’s her job to monitor health on base — a slice of America where you’ll find both a 24/7 fitness facility and a Burger King drive-through.
Looking at the stats, Cates says, “I wouldn’t pat us on the back.” Out of a force of 3,150 soldiers stationed in Italy, 11.4 percent are obese, 23.2 percent use tobacco and 8.4 percent suffer from a sleep disorder. What’s even more worrisome? These numbers are better than the overall U.S. Army average.
That’s why the military — just like you — is thinking about how to get healthier in the new year and beyond.
Vicenza has been selected as one of 10 innovation demonstration locations by Healthy Army Communities, a program that aims to design environments where people eat smarter and move more. (Other locations include Fort Meade in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia.)
After a comprehensive site assessment this month, Vicenza will develop an action plan to address its needs. That could mean a variety of things, including an expansion of its bike lane network, more social media promotions rewarding healthy behavior, revamped menu labels and the introduction of healthy vending machines.
These base makeovers are setting the scene for the launch of Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F), a larger initiative — a decade in the making and still pending final approval — that strives to radically change how the Army prepares service members. The proposal includes the introduction of a new field manual for training, plus the creation of Soldier Performance Readiness Centers (SPRC, pronounced “spark”), which will be state-of-the-art fitness facilities staffed by experts who can educate and offer real-time feedback on proper form, psychological well-being, nutrition and more.
An SPRC is not exactly a gym, says Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who commands the Center for Initial Military Training at Virginia’s Fort Eustis, which is behind H2F. He compares it to the way the Army cares for equipment. “What we don’t have is a range to improve yourself,” he explains.
A better understanding of human performance is part of the impetus behind H2F, Frost says. But the initiative is also a reaction to the current American population, which is not nearly as fit as in previous generations. Frost says it’s a challenge to fight when tens of thousands of soldiers — or, as he calls them, “our primary weapons system” — are non-deployable because of weight problems and injuries.
Folks signing up to serve were once in peak condition, Frost says. "I like to say that 15 to 30 years ago, recruits were better prepared. We were analogous to marinated steaks," he explains. "Throw us on the grill and we were ready to be soldiers.
"Now we are getting more frozen steaks — less prepared recruits. And sometimes the gap is further — you've got to get the cow, slaughter it and process it, freeze it, then marinate it to be a better prepared soldier."
One emerging issue is that soldiers are entering with poor bone density, explains Michael S. McGurk, director of research and analysis at the Center for Initial Military Training. Put them through a rigorous fitness program, and they’re likely to get hurt, he says. That’s obviously no fun for them, and it’s not cost-effective for the military. In response, his team has created the Performance Readiness Bar, a chocolate-flavored snack that sneaks in vitamin D and calcium supplements.
Soldiers can look forward to sampling that in the coming years — along with a revamped fitness test, which sits at the heart of the H2F initiative.
For nearly 40 years, the Army has graded service members on just three exercises: push-ups, situps and a two-mile run. That turns out to be a pretty lousy way of judging how prepared soldiers really are for combat, McGurk says.
And they know it, notes Maj. Nate Showman, a former exercise instructor at the U.S. Military Academy who’s now deputy operations officer with the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) at Vicenza. These are paratroopers who load heavy stuff onto planes and then jump out of them. Showman says soldiers are often confused by the situation. “They say, ‘This is what I’m tested on, but that is what you need me to do,’ ” he explains.
The newly proposed Army Combat Readiness Test keeps the run and modifies the push-ups. (Instead, they’re “T push-ups,” which means you finish each rep by lying flat on the ground, and reaching your arms out to the sides.) It adds a three-rep dead lift, a medicine ball throw, a hanging leg tuck, and a series of sprints — some of which must be completed while dragging and carrying weights.
Tapping into strength and power as well as muscular endurance better mirrors real-life demands, says Showman, who helped with some of the research. It’s also in line with a fitness program that leaders in Vicenza created last year and have been pushing internally. Called SPEAR (Soldier Performance Education for Advanced Readiness and Resilience), it’s heavy on instruction, nutrition and sports psychology, and incorporates a broader range of movements, including tire flips, Olympic lifting and agility drills.
The goal? “Prevent injury and get back to the fight,” says Maj. Nate Hathaway, 173rd surgeon, who notes that most soldiers haven’t had access to this kind of specialized education before.
With the arrival of H2F, increased resources will make it standardized throughout the force, which is why Frost believes the impact can be enormous. “To do this yourself, it’s hard,” he says.
Guess it helps to have an Army behind you — and fewer mini liquor bottles beside you.