FORT SILL, Okla. (Nov. 3, 2016) — Fort Sill is in the forefront of the Army’s revision of physical fitness standards for military occupational specialties (MOS), and while the new standards will be rolled out at some point soon for incoming recruits, it would not have been possible without the work done at Fort Sill to validate those standards.
Scientists from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), Military Performance Division in Natick, Mass., tested Soldiers in advanced individual training (AIT) who were given the new Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) during basic combat training here 12 weeks earlier. One group was evaluated in June, and another in early July. A third group and final group was tested in August.
Those AIT Soldiers were tested in the new High Physical Demands Tasks (HPDT) required for graduation from AIT in a specific combat MOS such as field artillery. The initial HPDT studies were done here June 2013, as part of the Soldier 2020 Gender-Neutral Physical Standards Study to determine tasks that combat Soldiers would need to pass, depending on their MOS. This year the team was back to see how well the predictive OPAT test translates into higher performance on the HPDT.
Dr. Bruce Cohen, one of the scientists administering the tests, said the standards will benefit all Soldiers. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you can either do the highest physical demand for your job, or you can’t,” he said. “So we’ll put the right person in the right job. They’ll perform better, maybe have less injuries, and less turnover.”
Cohen, who has a doctorate in exercise health and sports psychology, has been with ARIEM for a decade. He said he is interested in “making people mentally and physically tough without breaking them, so that they can be more resilient.”
Peter Frykman, of the Military Performance Division at ARIEM, said the OPAT and new HPDT studies drew on the experiences of Soldiers already in those ground combat jobs. “Schoolhouses weighed in. The infantry school, the armor school, the artillery, combat engineers, they all said ‘This is what we think is the most physically demanding stuff that we do.’ We tested Soldiers in the real world doing those jobs and looked at their performance. We administered a set of predictive tests to find out, do those predictive tests predict their ability to do those high physically demanding tasks?”
Cohen added, “We’re doing the science end of it. TRADOC does the implementation. We’re validating that we have the right tests for the right positions.”
About 12 of the five dozen Soldiers participating in the validation tests July 6-8, 2016, were women. Because there aren’t enough females in the newly opened combat specialties to draw from, women volunteers training for other jobs also elected to be part of the study.
The validation test is also being conducted at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort Benning, Ga., because they train infantry, armor, and combat engineers. “This is going to be very, very important for the future of the Army,” said Frykman. “Soldiers walk around with a lot more load than in the past.”
The scientists are careful to eliminate as many variables as possible at each test site, and to re-create the testing scenarios as closely as possible from one installation to another.
For instance, the surface used to drag casualties at each site was constructed using portable fitness mats to ensure the same surface at all testing locations. It, would not have been a fair comparison to use grass at one location and concrete at another. To prevent grader bias, enlisted ARIEM personnel also wear the maroon shirts of the civilian staff.
“The reason we don’t wear a uniform,” said Staff Sgt. Josue Contreras, medical laboratory noncommissioned officer, “is so we don’t influence their decision-making and don’t look like figures of authority to them, like their cadre do.”
Even photography during the actual testing was not allowed so behavior wouldn’t be unduly influenced.
Some of the tasks used to validate the OPAT are the casualty drag (simulating rescue of a 270-pound victim), moving sandbags to simulate building a fighting position, and a casualty evacuation to simulate lifting someone out of vehicle hatch, like those found on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
In that test, Soldiers lifted bags starting at 60 pounds up to 100, 140, 180 and 210 pounds through a hole in a wooden platform.
A variant of the HPDT requirement for 13B cannoneers was also part of the test. Soldiers had to lift and place 15 100-pound artillery shells and place them in the bustle rack of a field artillery ammunition supply vehicle (FAASV), and then take them back out again. Cohen said one of the fastest times was by a young female Soldier who completed the task in five minutes, versus the 15 minutes allowed.
For all the tests the Soldiers wore a full fighting load of about 70 pounds, consisting of a helmet, a Camelbak water pouch, a fighting load carrier for ammunition and grenades, and body armor.
Each Soldier had an orange folder in which scientists recorded the test results for each task. After the validation testing is complete, ARIEM will evaluate the data and make recommendations to TRADOC on how well the OPAT predicted HPDT success.
Once fully approved the OPAT will be required for all new Soldiers joining the Army, and all Soldiers switching MOS from a low physical demand job to a higher physical demand job.
It is expected that AREIM will finish the testing and data collection at all locations in November. By January they hope to send initial results to TRADOC for review.
The OPAT is in final approval process with senior Army leadership, and it is expected to become a requirement for all new recruits in fiscal 2017. New recruits will be required to take and pass the OPAT, at the level of their MOS, prior to shipping from home to Initial Entry Training. The Army believes this will help raise their level of fitness and make them more prepared to meet the challenges of basic combat training.