Air Force BMT Won't Scale Back PT Program Despite Deaths at Shaw AFB

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7th WOT Motivation by the MTI assists these seventh week flights to exceed their run times for the final physical training assessment. (U.S. Air Force photo/M.K.Mueller)
7th WOT Motivation by the MTI assists these seventh week flights to exceed their run times for the final physical training assessment. (U.S. Air Force photo/M.K.Mueller)

Air Force Basic Military Training officials do not plan on curtailing their newly expanded physical fitness program even though leaders at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, recently suspended fitness tests in the wake of two airmen's deaths.

Air Education and Training Command (AETC) officials are monitoring developments at Shaw but don't plan to change the current BMT curriculum, according to Col. Jason Corrothers, 737th Training Group and BMT commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

"Have we done anything to soften or dilute or change anything related to our physical fitness approach? The answer to that is no," Corrothers said in a phone interview Tuesday when asked about the recent deaths at Shaw.

Col. Derek O'Malley, commander of Shaw's 20th Fighter Wing, ordered the PT test stand-down and an investigation into any potential connections between the deaths of Senior Airman Amalia Joseph, 32, and Senior Airman Aaron Hall, 30. Both died a few days after suffering health complications during the run portion of the test.

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Joseph died May 26 and Hall on June 1. Both airmen were assigned to the 20th Component Maintenance Squadron, Shaw officials said in a statement.

The "new BMT," which took effect Sept. 4, increased the PT curriculum from 31 to 44 fitness sessions throughout the 8.5-week course. Workouts have a "balanced mix of cardio, strength and interval training," AETC has said.

The training is tough and meant to get recruits into better fitness and health habits. In some cases, medical personnel are incorporated into the BMT PT, Corrothers said.

"We have an incredible partnership with our medical teammates here to make sure that as we execute physical fitness training ... we have medical technicians with us so that we can respond at any point in time to a medical situation that may arise," he said.

"I will tell you that we have vibrant conversations across the joint force related to the physical training programs at all Basic Military Training institutions" for lessons learned, he added.

Corrothers said the Air Force recently reached out to the Navy after it was reported four sailors had died in the past year during physical fitness tests.

The Navy last month ordered sailors to watch fitness test participants more closely for signs of distress and allow do-overs for those having a "bad day," following a string of deaths over the past year, including two young female recruits who collapsed during the tests.

Seaman recruits Kelsey Nobles, 18, and Kierra Evans, 20, both collapsed during their final physical fitness tests at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois. Nobles died in April and Evans in February.

"We're trying to build habits of mind as well as habits of body. We're going to do that smartly because we're not looking to break anybody, but we're certainly wanting them to understand that fitness is a lifestyle habit. And so that's part of what we're getting after here," Corrothers said.

BMT's new PT program was developed with input from experts in exercise science, he said, adding that the changes have helped make BMT more successful overall.

"Our historical attrition rate for Basic Military Training has been about six-and-a-half percent, which has long been among the best of all of the services. Right now, our attrition is five-and-a-half percent. And so what we've been able to see is that we've created a tougher, stronger BMT program, but we haven't done that by breaking any more folks coming in," Corrothers said.

"I do think that is that there is risk in anything that we do within a military training environment. But if we [become] so risk averse, we could potentially compromise that airman that we're delivering to our Air Force in terms of readiness and lethality. And so we're still all in with fitness. … We're going to do it correctly," he said.

Another change is on the horizon: By Oct. 1, BMT hopes to introduce "embedded sports medicine" into the program.

"Embedded sports medicine will put a specifically trained exercise physiologist in every single squadron so that they can train both our permanent party staff and be there to coach and counsel our trainees relating to what 'right' looks like when it comes to the science of exercise," Corrothers said.

That includes injury prevention and injury rehabilitation "so that we don't have to remove somebody from the training flight unnecessarily," he said.

Corrothers said BMT leaders are hopeful embedded sports medicine will be "a game changer."

"What we really want to take is a more preventative approach to" physical fitness, he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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