‘Preparing for the battlefield’: Athletics and leadership in ROTC| November 15, 2019
It’s a Wednesday morning, 06:47 a.m., 27 degrees outside. Kanye West’s “Stronger” blasts over the Jadwin Gymnasium speakers. Twenty-five runners — with mostly matching uniforms, mostly matching crewcuts, mostly matching gaits — have settled into a rhythm.
They woke up as first-years and seniors, history majors and engineers, Oklahomans and Connecticut natives. They pulled on standard-issue shirts, shorts, socks, strapped on their running watches. Some of them double-checked to make sure their shaves were clean. And somewhere in the walk from each of their dorms to Jadwin Gym, 25 students became something else entirely: a platoon of Army cadets.
It’s a Wednesday morning, 06:48 a.m., 27 degrees outside. The cadets round the indoor track — again, and again, and again. They sweat. They curse. They cheer each other on. “Stronger” gives way to a medley of other songs of West’s. The women’s basketball team files into practice; dribbles start to echo through the hall.
ROTC meets thrice weekly for Personal Training (PT) sessions: hour-long circuits of physical exercises tailored to the all-important Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). A diagnostic version of the test is administered monthly, a recorded one administered once per semester. The APFT entails a timed two-mile run, two minutes of pushups, and two of sit-ups. Cadets are evaluated on a rubric that takes into account their age and gender.
The resulting score has pressing implications. Repeated failure to pass a PT test results in a cadet’s expulsion from the ROTC program and the ensuing revocation of his Army scholarship. (The Army provides each of its ROTC cadets with a scholarship, which covers either room and board or full tuition.) In tandem with his GPA, a cadet’s PT score determines his national ranking. That, in turn, will decide his active-duty branch after graduation and commissioning.
In the coming months, Tiger Company will begin phasing out the APFT, the bedrock of its physical training program, for the Army’s new chosen metric of physical fitness: The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). The test features six tasks: a deadlift, standing power throw, hand-release pushups, sprint-drag and-carry, leg-tuck, and two-mile run. Notably, it will also abandon the gender and age-based rubric.
To someone like Cadet Staff Sergeant Savannah Hampton ’22, that news is bittersweet. 19-year old, female Hampton currently boasts a perfect PT score of 300: more than 42 pushups in two minutes, more than 78 sit-ups in two minutes, and a two-mile run in a time faster than 15:36.
“As a small female, it’s easy for me to max the test by working on pushups and sit-ups, and naturally running,” she said. “Training for the new test has been a lot more difficult for me. I’m a little bit sad to see the APFT and my perfect score go, but I know that this is a positive step for the Army. It ensures combat readiness. On the battlefield, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female, a 50-year-old general, or it’s your first combat deployment.”
Regardless of whether it comes from the APFT or the ACFT, a cadet’s PT score reigns supreme over his ROTC experience.
“The result of a PT test is a measure of physical fitness, and physical fitness is a measure of how dedicated and committed you are,” said Lieutenant Colonel Courtney Jones, Director of the Army Education Program. “How accountable are you to yourself and those around you? How well can you motivate yourself?”
He pauses, then laughs.
“Here’s an example. In my time in the Army, I’ve always gotten 100 percent in every category of PT. That demonstrates that I’m motivated, I’m serious about my physical fitness. And I can use that to motivate the cadets, too. I mean, they’re half my age. You can’t beat a 43-year-old?”
PT involves activities ranging from swimming to sprint intervals to 10-mile ruck marches to stadiums to, on special occasions, dodgeball. It’s grueling.
“Damn,” gasped one sweating cadet, bent double after finishing his ninth 400-meter interval. “God. Damn.”
Cadets come from a variety of athletic backgrounds. Past Companies saw varsity athletes populate their ranks, but as Division I commitments ramped up in recent years, more cadets have opted instead to participate in club sports. For those with athletic backgrounds, passing — and excelling at — the APFT comes easily.
For some, though, the APFT marks the first time they’ve pushed themselves to their physical limits.
A struggling cadet who scores below 70 percent on any event is sent to “remedial PT,” a series of extra PT sessions, in an effort to curtail the gap. To hold him accountable, the Company also pairs him with a more experienced, better-performing cadet.
Cadets relegated to remedial PT aren’t the only ones expected to work out on their own time.
“The goal is to reach and exceed the Army standard,” said Cadet Sergeant First Class Jason Kim ’21.
“I put in ten to twelve hours in the gym a week,” said Cadet Second Lieutenant Jacob Rob ’21. “Every time I go, a see a couple of other ROTC guys in there.”
And while PT aims to increase and maintain cadets’ physical fitness, it amounts as much to an exercise in leadership as it does to one in athletic performance: it is an entirely cadet-let endeavor.
Company leadership — Cadet Captain Caleb Visser ’20, Cadet First Sergeant Eliza Ewing ’20, and Cadet First Lieutenant Kasey Bersh ’20 — determine an overarching plan. They disseminate it to the next tier of leadership: the platoon level.
Rob and Cadet Second Lieutenant Seyitcan Ucin ’20 serve as platoon leaders; Kim and Cadet Sergeant First Class Ethan Katz ’21 serve as platoon sergeants. The platoon leadership coordinates a schedule which allows each lower-level cadet to lead a PT session.
“It gives the younger cadets an opportunity to develop their command presence and their comfort level of being in front of a formation and leading an exercise,” Visser explained. “They have to be able to promote cohesion and to promote the goals and aspirations of the Army. Sometimes that means pushing the cadets you’re commanding; sometimes that means sacrificing the most intense workout so one of your cadets can gain confidence.”
“We equate physical fitness with leadership potential,” Jones said. “But sometimes you can’t help what happens — you know the damn Spiegl twins.”
Cadet Sterling Spiegl ’21 was midway through a six-mile ruck march last October when he took a bad step. It wasn’t until hours later, when he peeled off his combat boots and socks to reveal a blackened right foot, that he realized something was wrong.
McCosh Health Center took an x-ray. It was clean; they told him to rest for six weeks. He did. A month and a half later, intense pain in his right ankle prevented his full-fledged return to running. Back he went to McCosh, where they told him to rest a little longer. He followed their advice. The pain kept coming.
Home in Atlanta that spring break, a longtime doctor of Spiegl’s diagnosed him with a tibial stress fracture. He rested again until June when, upon his return to running, his leg refractured.
Spiegl was presented with two options. He could let himself heal naturally by taking a year off from running. Or he could have major surgery to install a rod in his leg. The natural route appealed, but with it came a caveat.
In theory, Spiegl’s scholarship was good for four years – and it was dependent on his enrollment in the ROTC program. A year without running would mean a year without a PT test; that would mean expulsion from the program, and the loss of his scholarship.
His timing couldn’t have been worse.
Also last October, Cadet Staff Sergeant Jarrett Spiegl ’21 – Sterling’s twin, and one of three triplets – was sprinting up the field in a club rugby match against Columbia University. He headed for a tackle. It didn’t go his way.
“I thought I was fine,” he said. “I got up, kind of jogged around. After a few weeks, my left knee was still really swollen. I went to the rugby team doctor, and he told me I’d torn my ACL.”
He needed surgery, and fast. But as there had been for Sterling, there existed a problem for Jarrett. In order for his Army scholarship to be validated, he had to take the fall semester’s PT test. If he opted to have surgery, he wouldn’t be able to take the test until July; his scholarship would be gone. It seemed he had to take the APFT without an ACL.
This story has a happy ending: Lieutenant Colonel Jones, who vowed in an interview to “take care of whatever [his] cadets need,” did precisely that. He procured medical waivers for the two, now-contracted Spiegls. As long as Jarrett manages to pass his PT test this fall with a brace and Sterling manages to pass his this spring, the Spiegls’ service will continue as planned.
The Spiegls’ story, though – an injury, medical confusion, and then a seemingly dichotomous choice between proper care and the Army’s money – illustrates a palpable difference between the experience of varsity athletes at the University and the experience of ROTC Cadets.
“These are student athletes from our perspective,” said Jones. “Their scholarships are tied 100% to their physical condition.”
ROTC Cadets do mandatory, regularly-scheduled physical exercise in Jadwin Gymnasium, the hub of the University’s varsity athletics network. But unlike the varsity athletic programs who share ROTC’s practice space, Tiger Company has no designated trainer, no designated doctor, no designated physical therapist, and no designated academic advisors or faculty fellows.
That is not to say that all is hopeless for injured cadets. They have access to a wide support network and, as for every student, the University’s general health services. Typically, an injured cadet is placed on “profile” – a form of alternate, injury-friendly PT – until they’re healed.
Once they are, it’s back to business; back to the familiar routine of preparing for combat.
It’s a Wednesday morning, 07:28 a.m., 33 degrees outside. Twenty-five runners — with mostly matching uniforms, mostly matching crewcuts, mostly matching gaits — finish their 12th 400-meter interval. They catch their breath, stretch in formation, stand at attention.
They are dismissed. A palpable stiffness slips from their shoulders. Jackets cover uniforms, and a rumble of chatter spreads as first-years and seniors, history majors and engineers, Oklahomans and Connecticut natives thread their way from Jadwin to WuCox. The cadets gather for omelets, cereal, a debrief.
Their day lies ahead of them. The cadets are ready.