Our Loss: How the Air Force’s Dumb Fitness Policy Wastes Talent


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A recent article making the rounds of social media and evening news programs details the findings of a recent study indicating that Body Mass Index (BMI) is an inaccurate indication of fitness and health, flat wrong as often as 18% of the time due to variations in body types. This most recent study, reflecting common sense, follows an avalanche of reporting from reputable publications and medical journals over the last several years decrying the use of BMI as a crude human sorting tool that encourages life-altering decisions based on shorthand understanding of individual health and fitness.

And yet, in the world’s most consequential air force, which prides itself on smart operations and precision effects, this blunt tool comprises the core of an unscientific waist measurement that is part of every airman’s annual fitness evaluation. The folly this creates is well-documented, as is official disregard for the morale problems that feed on the resulting dysfunction.

The recent re-enlivening of the BMI discussion online instigated the re-telling of one particularly remarkable Air Force story, shared to JQP’s Facebook feed by former officer Michael G. Lewis, now a senior consultant for Bradley-Morris, the nation’s largest military job placement firm.

Here’s Mike’s original post:

I’m a 28 y/o former Air Force Officer. I came into the Air Force Academy at 6’2, 303 lbs ready to play offensive line for the Zoomies. My 40 yard dash was 5.05 seconds. My vertical was 30″. Squat – 605 lbs. Squat clean – 345 lbs. Bench press – 395 lbs. While at the Academy, I had my fair share of obstacles to graduate and pass the PFT/AFT at roughly 7,258 ft, but I successfully graduated and commissioned with a body fat of 18.1% (278 lbs). The mandatory 39″ waist measurement was not in effect at this time.

In Feb 2012, I failed my 4th and Final AF PT test. I maxed push-ups, maxed sit-ups. And ran 1.5 miles in roughly 12 mins. My waist was 40.5″ with a civilian employee who couldn’t accurately measure a waist if his life depended on it. The best part was, a month before this failure, I won the Patrick AFB/Cape Canaveral “Strongest Man” competition vs roughly 50 active duty men. The competition involved flipping 400 lb tires, Fireman carrying men 200 yards, sled pulling, etc.

I attempted every trick in the book to drop weight rapidly: starvation for weeks, doing jumping jacks in a sauna the night before 3 of my 4 failing PT tests, wrapping Saran Wrap around my waist with preparation H (total hoax, btw). The Air Force tried to assert their “fitness expertise” on me, too. They forced me to see a dietician every Monday morning to review my detailed diet log. I was forced to workout on base every morning @6am with additional supervised workouts throughout the week. I was running 15-20 miles a week at an average of an 8:45 mile pace for 6 months straight, and I still couldn’t pass the PT test due to the waist measurement.

Needless to say, I was massively over-trained for a year, and the result was arthritic back/knees and an honorable discharge; all in the name of “appearing” to be healthy according to some ridiculous blanket standard. The Air Force spent almost a half million dollars training me to be a military leader. Unfortunately for the American people, the Air Force is exceptionally terrible at Talent Management. Their loss.

Our loss indeed. This is a dumb policy. Not a measurable ounce of adverse mission impact, and yet not an ounce of maneuverability for a responsible adult leader to intervene and do what’s best for both the individual and the Air Force.

In just a few short years, Michael Lewis went from being recruited by the service to being forcibly ejected from it … and in that time, his health and fitness improved. And in that time, the taxpayer invested $500,000 in him. In that time, his value to the mission increased. And then, we shot our foot clean off by discarding him. There is simply no sense in this. 

I reached out to Mike to gather more of his story. He told me how his flight commander and squadron commander fought his corner, working hard and pulling every possible lever to preserve his career and his role as a Range Control Officer at Patrick Air Force Base.

But somehow, despite the fact Mike could be trusted to orchestrate launch sequences for million-dollar missiles carrying vital payloads with international stakes attached, he couldn’t remain an Air Force officer … not because he was unhealthy or unfit, but because he didn’t fit within the arbitrary bin designed by a faceless bureaucrat. Oh, and because his brigadier general wing commander lacked the perspective, the spine, or perhaps both … required to responsibly contain the consequences of triviality.

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Now let’s just take a step back. Is this really why we have 140 brigadier generals? So they can adjudicate fitness waivers for Lieutenants who are a half-inch into the red on the waist measurement? This clownery calls to mind the Tim Bush debacle from a few years ago … when a superbly performing wing commander was fired for the same infraction.

This happens because we lack the spine, even and especially at the highest levels, to actually make our organization work for its commanders … to challenge the idiotic rules we should never have allowed exist in the first place. In the Bush case, a 2-star general flew out to Grand Forks to relieve him. Imagine a two-star and his coterie rushing to board a corporate jet to be ferried on short notice to a distant outpost … not to be briefed on a war plan, hear about a new security threat, or preside over a medal ceremony … but to personally obsess over the marginally wayward results of a tape measure drawn around the belly of a visibly and verifiably fit and healthy subordinate. It’s farcical and embarrassing. We used to be better than this.

And we’re supposed to be smarter than this. If we’re a professional fighting force, we set high barriers to entry and then cultivate a strong team identity that does not let team members go without a fight. Or at least that’s what we were supposed to learn from centuries of observable military history.

When someone earns their way into our order, we should do what we can to keep them there, ditching them only when they can’t perform our mission. By that standard, we shouldn’t be discharging anyone over this. The Air Force stopped caring about the waist measurement for combat deployments years ago, which tacitly acknowledges that it doesn’t matter to combat performance for most individuals. If someone looks professional in uniform and can do his job, there shouldn’t be a fitness-based penalty, much less a discharge. The test should be used to determine who needs more workout time, not to oblige one airman to hunt and destroy another because the bureaucracy says so. Have we really devolved to a point where we need lazy tools to sort and place value upon ourselves without genuine, intelligent assessment? Our ideals may say no, but our conduct says yes.

This post will be met with scowls from the fitness absorbed crowd (who, perhaps unmysteriously, seem to have considerable overlap with the appearance obsessed crowd). To that, I offer the following photographic evidence that waist size has zero correlation with aerial leadership or combat capability.

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The USAF fitness test, and specifically the waist measurement component, is self-defeating. In the hands of spineless micromanagers and other sundry clipboard-wielders, it has become a butcher’s block where good careers get quartered because of imperfection, leaving an Air Force manned solely by those genetically predisposed to reflect the faddish preferences of the day.

When you’re competing with the whole world for the highest possible stakes, you can’t afford to lose even one solid performer … and certainly not every solid performer who doesn’t conform to a blanket policy relegating commanders to rulebook reading rather than sound, mission-driven human resource judgments. And if the contention is that commanders aren’t qualified or trustworthy enough to make such judgments, the answer is to train and educate better leaders. Start by finding ways to retain strong officers instead of looking for ways to discard them.

I’m told by friends inside the Pentagon that General Welsh refuses to even hear a suggestion that passes within a mile of the fitness program. It’s not that he’s waiting for a good idea. It’s that he’s not interested in any ideas. So much for continuous improvement, innovation, and taking care of people. Those things apparently only apply in the situations and contexts Welsh authorizes. This is what we’ve come to expect from modern Air Force generals, and nothing new. But it shouldn’t be countenanced passively when it hurts the mission by hounding and jettisoning strong airmen.

There was a time when we took care of one another instead of turning on one another with value judgments and character impeachments based on body shape and other outward appearances. There was a time when we valued the heart and mind of an airman enough to keep a rotund belly in perspective. There was a time when policies, rules, and command climate supported unit cohesion rather than unit division. Let’s hope we get back there before it’s too late.

This dumb policy would be a great place to start.


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