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January 23, 2004

On the Army and Fat Boys.

Jeff at Backcountry Conservative has a bit on the young troop who took his gripe against AR 600-9 (the Army Weight Control Program) public in a big way.

This screed is coming from someone who was taped (actually, I go far enough back to the "pinch test" using calipers) for my entire career. 5'11", lbs, 10 percent body fat - via the 'dunk test' a more accurate measure than the tape. With the tape, the 20 inch neck certainly didn't hurt. That was in my young days, before my thyroid threw a hissy fit and quit working. Then hell as an officer ensued.

I endorse SGT Hook's comment - a standard is a standard - but the Army could usefully follow the advice of the four blue-ribbon panels that have told them, "screw body fat, focus on PT performance". If your PT standards are on-target, truly fat people aren't going to pass them. Ask the Marines.

The problem with the current system is that we have a double standard. The de jure standard is percent body fat. The de facto standard is screening table weight. That translates to percent body fat is a retention standard, screening table weight oft times becomes a selection criteria. Another annoying aspect of the 'flag' system for suspending favorable personnel actions is that of timing. If (as for example in the troop in question or Jeff's personal example) you injure yourself, gain weight, and get flagged - if it happens the day after you were promoted and 6 months prior to your next efficiency report - all things being equal and your rater/senior rater not being assholes, it has no effect other than the embarrassment of getting weighed and taped.

Let it happen right before an efficiency report is due, or your number coming up for promotion -it has real impacts. That efficiency report is never going away, and is always going to hang there, looming over your career. If you are really good, and it doesn't happen again, you'll probably survive - until that board later in your career, like the CGSC board and LTC board and LTC command board, when that is the only difference on paper between you and 100 other guys competing for 30 slots. Your chances just pretty much hit the crapper unless you stand head and shoulders above everybody else.

The impact if it happens right before your sequence number hits is like a fine. You don't get promoted that month, you don't get the raise and the seniority that goes with it. Take two months, it just adds up. So, in that respect it can be a little capricious, though I don't have a solution to offer, because frankly, the flag *is* an effective motivator.

For some perspective that you "young 'uns" might not have is that prior to the 80's the army weight tables differentiated between small, medium, large, and 'obese' body types. Looking at the old height-weight tables, even after my thyroid blew up (I spent 3 years prior to retirement passing PT tests but flagged for overweight as the Docs tried to figure out the problem - but that's a career-killer just the same) I would have passed the standard for my height-age-body type - until the very end, which, ironically, is when the Docs finally figured out what was wrong. (That is an artifact of military health care, which should be the subject of a different post - probably the next time some Dem stands up (or General Clark) to propose that everybody have military style health care. Which isn't the slam it sounds like - just a cautionary tale).

When they decided to simplify (and reduce the chances for abuse of the classification criteria) they essentially took the medium weight scale, lopped off about 10 pounds (at the higher end) and made that the screening standard. This occurred in reaction to several things - the post-Vietnam military malaise, the rise of the jogging fitness craze, the real rise of the 'thin is in' craze and a correct perception on the part of the army leadership that we needed to get our collective PT act together.

All well and good - but in the implementation we threw the baby out with the bath water, especially for the big guys. As for the pencil-necked sunken-chested geeks - as I discovered while in command, the little guys could be well over the body fat percentage but wouldn't kick past the screening weight - because we chose to use a one-size-fits-all screening standard.

When you add to the mix the fact that promotion boards essentially search for reasons to not promote people, because the vast bulk of the files going before a board are full of fully qualified people... we had the screening weight turn into a selection standard.

Suffice it to say I'm with the people who say set the PT standard high enough, and weight just isn't going to matter. And lord knows we've been trying that. The standard I had to meet for push-ups and the 2 mile run the year I retired were higher than the same standards I had to meet as an 18 year old. Every revision of the PT test standards moved things up. Which is a good thing, given the way they are derived. But we never got rid of the de facto/de jure weight thing. And, to get past that - if percent body fat is what we've decided is important, just tape everybody. Don't put height/weight on the efficiency report, just percent body fat. For everybody. Then at least we'll be comparing apples to apples.

Lastly - ditch the picture, too. And, for the record, I took good pictures. They just allow for another form of subliminal discrimination to take place. In fact, I would love to try a test of Army promotion boards. It would be difficult to pull together in terms of experimental method (I'm ignoring all aspects of cost here).

Give the board the files with no names or personally identifying pronouns, i.e., sanitize gender references (this will have no effect on the direct combat branches, but work with me here) and no photographs. This will take away the clues the board has to gender and race, body type, etc. It will force them to rank candidates solely based on performance (and how well the rater/senior rater can write, but that's different issue).

Then let 'em have the files as we do it now. While I would hope to find no difference at all, I suspect we'd find the differences instructive.

As I said, coming up with a valid experiment would be hard. There is the inoculating effect of the board having essentially seen the same files twice. You could use more boards sitting simultaneously to normalize the results somewhat (like we have the time for that, pulling those kinds of leaders out in this op-tempo) and, of course, it doesn't account for bias that gets in the system because of raters/senior rater bias. I still think it would be fun to see what the differences were.

Just my $2.00 worth.

John | Permalink | Comments (1) | Observations on things Military
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