FORT SILL, Okla., (Jan. 28, 2016) — Anybody who’s been through basic combat training might have a certain image of drill sergeants.
In your face.
God-like in their abilities and authority.
But if you’re a middle school student at Tomlinson Middle School in Lawton, you might see them as inspirational role models. Tough folks who expect you to “be the best you can be.” Men and women who were once just like you: unsure of yourself, pressured by their peers, afraid to fail.
Now these Soldiers are towering over you, yelling, as you lay on the gym floor with your classmates. Maybe not real drill sergeant-style yelling. But giving orders nonetheless.
One, two, three, four. You’re pushing your body off the cold floor, and back down again, and your arms are wobbling like legs of a newborn calf. Your goal: to win the Presidential Youth Fitness Award.
This partnership of Fort Sill Soldiers and the middle school is one of Maj. Gen. John Rossi’s initiatives, to involve his troops in local schools. Rossi, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, with help from the school liaison office on post, meetings with the school principal Edward Williams, and input from the coaches, created the program.
Upon learning that his battalion would partner with Tomlinson Middle School, Lt. Col. Mark Anders, commanding officer, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery, said that he had a pool of 50 drill sergeants ready to help immediately. He met with Williams and they came up with some ideas.
“I still have a certificate from when I completed the Presidential Youth Fitness Program as a middle school student,” Anders said. “I thought, maybe we could get this school enrolled [in the program] and see how many kids we could help to pass the test.”
The school had not participated in the Presidential Youth Fitness Program and the gym teachers were enthusiastic about the idea. On Fridays, two male and two female drill sergeants donned their physical training uniforms and navigated the emotional maze of adolescent motivations.
“Rather than coming on too strong and scaring kids away from what we were trying to accomplish,” Anders said. “We found ways to motivate and push the students without hurting bodies or too many feelings.”
The drill sergeants instructed the students on the physical readiness training, or PRT, modules and slowly increased the intensity over the semester. The skills trained in each of the PRT modules fit with the fitness test used by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program and prepared students for testing in December.
Getting funding was another challenge. There was no time to apply for grants, and the school year was already under way with its budget set in place. Fortunately, the child, youth and school services, or CYSS, program on Fort Sill had funds through a community outreach program, and $1,600 was spent on equipment and awards in support of the effort.
Jay Hunt, Fort Sill Youth Sports and Fitness director, said most of the money went to purchase medals for all of the participants able to pass the test. At $3 apiece, that was a huge chunk of change. CYSS also purchased certificates, score pads, stopwatches, skin fold calipers to test body mass, a floor scale, a flexibility box, and a wall chart listing fitness standards by age.
In that around 100 of the school’s students are Fort Sill Family members, the investment made even more sense.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to get kids away from TV and video games for awhile,” Hunt said.
Jeremy LaPierre, physical education teacher and coach, described some of the challenges and fitness indicators of the program. “Each student must pass five of the eight categories in order to be presidentially fit,” he said of the top level of achievement. There is also a target of “nationally fit,” and “standard fit,” which he said most students fall into.
“They have to do a certain number of pushups, sit-ups, chin-ups, run a mile under a certain amount of time, and complete a timed shuttle run,” LaPierre said. There are also flexibility and body mass index standards as well. “We took this president’s challenge very, very seriously. It was a huge undertaking.”
LaPierre said it was a natural pairing of motivated Soldiers with students. “These Soldiers work out daily, and we thought who better to help us with physical education than people who do it constantly?”
It wasn’t just the fitness aspect, but also the benefits the kids could get from interacting with adults. “We want kids to have the ability to be around people who can guide them in a positive direction,” LaPierre said. “Our kids see military people all the time in uniform. We want to bring them into school as positive role models. Soldiers understand teamwork, integrity and commitment to a goal, and they live by it.”
LaPierre said the positive attitude has changed the way the students relate to each other. “They had the best attitude in class, they speak positively and are being polite to one another,” he said of the added benefits. “The more positive people you put around kids, the more positive they become.”
He said the drill sergeants lived up to expectations. “They didn’t come in yelling and screaming. They were amazing,” he said. They came in wearing their Army shorts and T-shirts. Only on test day did they wear their drill sergeant outfits. It was all about professionalism. We wanted the kids to see drill instructors as just like us, and to mingle with them. For many of the kids, it was the first time they entered a challenge of that magnitude.”
LaPierre said students are already asking when they’ll get to do the program again. “We have kids who are pleased with themselves because they did things they didn’t know they could do.”
At the end of the first semester, approximately 230 of the 330 students, who took the final fitness test passed. The program has rolled over into the second semester.
Anders said his unit plans to continue the program next year, and they will look for grants, sponsors, and a way to involve local businesses to acquire necessary funding.
“The great thing about this program is that we are able to get a huge return on a very small investment of time and resources,” Anders said. “This is something many students will remember and carry forward into the future. Who knows, in 25 years maybe one of them will be a battalion commander trying to figure out what to do with his or her partnered school, and will reflect on the Presidential Youth Fitness Medal earned in middle school.”
Photo credit: Drill sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Michael Williams, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery, barks out orders to last semester’s physical education students at Tomlinson Middle School in Lawton, Oklahoma, as gym coach Jeremy LaPierre assists. They prepared students for the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, which most passed. (Courtesy photo)