From Marines to the Air Force: Inside the Hierarchy of Military Fitness

The other night I attended a dinner party with a few fellow veterans and we began to reminisce.  As sailors and marines are wont to do, we eventually got around to mocking the Air Force (“the Air Farce,” “the Chair Force,” etc.).  We shared many laughs at the expense of our soft-bellied airmen brethren, with their pristine golf courses and fancy officers’ clubs.

But then I got to thinking…maybe I was employing more than a little revisionist history.

The truth is, much of the US military is not very fit. Forget the movies with buff, bulging heroes in uniform. Active duty soldiers, sailors and airmen don’t typically look like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Jarhead.” The marines, well, maybe. I’m not looking to piss off any marines.

fit marines

Advice to writers is always to “write what you know,” so this isn’t a commentary on infantry troops, marines, or anyone who carries an 80-lb pack for miles and miles (I thought the army had invented trucks by now but hey, maybe it makes them feel more like real men to carry their own bedrolls). I’m writing about sailors, having been one and lived among them. And we were not a fit bunch.

A typical day in the life of a sailor unfolds thus: after a snooze in a warm bed, the mess decks await. There, in all its glory, lies a spread that wouldn’t look out of place on a Carnival cruise. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, grits, biscuits, toast, muffins, oatmeal with all the toppings – enough to feed thousands of strapping 18-year old men. Except that they aren’t “strapping.” They’re a bit soft around the middle from meals like this.

mess decks

These calories weren’t going to be worked off anytime soon.  A few jobs on the ship involved minimal exercise, like standing instead of sitting. The most active sailors were the ones with the least desirable jobs (like chipping and painting, which was only slightly better than sweeping and scrubbing).

sailors sweeping

Only one job on my frigate required physical strength: handling the ammunition rounds for the five-inch gun. They were indeed heavy. But let’s put this in perspective: I was a 5-foot 7-inch woman who weighed about 130 pounds, and I could carry them.

Nevertheless, we didn’t want to strain anyone – the brunt of this ammo-handling went to a gunner’s mate who was by far the biggest guy on the ship. He’d played division “something-that-was-not-1” football as a linebacker before landing this fine job. His branded, tattooed biceps were the size of my thighs.

You may be thinking, “So there WAS indeed someone physically fit on the ship!”  Sadly, no. This gentleman regularly failed the PRT (physical readiness test).  His massive frame was not made for running. Of course his actual JOB didn’t involve running and he managed it just fine, but rules are rules and everyone had to pass the PRT two times a year to maintain combat readiness.


A bigger mockery of “readiness” would be hard to invent. The 275 members of our ship’s crew had a variety of jobs and we were very good at them. We could drive and maneuver the ship, maintain and repair its engines, track and prosecute enemy submarines, and serve as part of a carrier battle group. Somehow the powers that be imagined that we couldn’t properly do ANY of those things unless twice a year, we disembarked, headed to some nearby patch of grass, and counted how many push-ups and sit-ups we could complete in two minutes.

As if that indignity weren’t enough, we also had to RUN. A mile and a half. In the Navy, you need to be able to run fast about as much as you need to know how to land a back handspring. We could WALK the entire length of our ship in less than 60 seconds. But there we were, slogging out this minimal distance in the mid-day Texas sun. Thanks to the laughably low standards, most of us passed. A few didn’t.

The marines noticed our low standards and always called that portion of the PRT the “run / walk.”  On the sliding scale of military fitness, they proudly set the highest standard.  They ran a lot farther. They did many more push-ups.

We members of the regular Navy knew we were not worthy.

But at least we weren’t in the Air Force.


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