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Navy helps recruits get ship-shape

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Mason Hawks came to Naval Station Great Lakes in January for eight weeks of basic training. Thirteen weeks later, long after the rest of his division had graduated, he was still there, unable to get over a hurdle that stymies hundreds of recruits each year: He couldn’t run 1½ miles fast enough.

(PHOTO: Recruits Julian Carlile and Christopher Wilson, from left, run with encouragement from Petty Officer Steven Benson, right, as recruits in the Fitness Improvement Training (FIT) program run a mile and a half on April 11, 2012, at Naval Station Great Lakes in Great Lakes, Illinois. FIT is a remedial fitness program designed to help recruits who are struggling to meet physical fitness standards.)

The former electronics installer from Carthage, N.C., had failed 11 times to finish under 13 minutes 30 seconds, and he knew that sooner or later the Navy’s patience would end. It costs $180 a day to house and feed a recruit at Great Lakes, and if Hawks couldn’t pass the fitness test, there was no reason to keep him around.

His 12th attempt came April 16. Hawks, a lean and pale 20-year-old with chunky black eyeglasses, started strong, bounding confidently around the padded indoor track. But little by little the pain etched itself on his face, and with two laps remaining his mouth twisted into a grimace. He put his hands on his head and slowed to a walk.

“No!” shouted a chorus of trainers running alongside him. “Sprint! Sprint as fast as you can!”

Hawks gulps a few deep breaths. Then, as the seconds ticked away mercilessly on a digital clock, he forced his legs back into a jog.

So it goes inside FIT, a Navy program designed to whip severely out of shape young men and women into condition. Recruits who have spent years — or lifetimes — adhered to the couch come here when even the rigors of boot camp fail to bring them up to the service’s minimum standard of strength and cardiovascular fitness.

The training, which Great Lakes officials say has a more than 90 percent success rate, mixes old school military discipline with new age nurturing. It aims not only to push recruits out of boot camp, but to help them conquer poor eating and exercise habits that could hurt their careers.

“We’re a military organization and we have warriors,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who recently announced more exacting physical standards for the service’s personnel, told the Tribune. “You may have a desk job and a shore billet today, but the way your career in the Navy works, you’re going back to sea on a very routine basis. If you lose that culture of fitness, you might never get it back, and it’s going to be much harder when you go back to sea.”

Simply to make it to Great Lakes, a male recruit generally can have no more than 22 percent body fat, while a female cannot exceed 33 percent. That rules out a substantial portion of young Americans: The average 19-year-old male has 23 percent body fat, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, while the average female is at 35 percent.

But many who get through the initial screening are still in poor condition. Senior Chief Nathan Cann, the man in charge of the Great Lakes program, said up to 70 percent of the roughly 37,000 recruits who come to the base each year fail their first fitness test, mostly because of the run (push-ups and abdominal curl-ups pose much less of a problem, he said).

The exertion of boot camp is enough to get most recruits into shape, but about 5 percent end up needing extra help. Josue Delgado is a typical example.

Delgado, 19, grew up near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and said he had been a dedicated soccer player as a child. Then he hit high school and gained 20 pounds of fat.

“Video games,” he said sheepishly.

Though he shed 17 pounds during boot camp, he was still a minute away from hitting his run time of 12 minutes 30 seconds (times vary depending on age and sex). So while the friends with whom he entered the service left Great Lakes to start their Navy careers, he was placed into FIT.

The program is an extension of what the recruits have already done: plenty of cardio and strength work, with running every other day. The main difference is that they get a lot more personal attention.

Recruit division commanders — informally known as “motivators” — are a near-constant presence in the barracks. They lead recruits through sets of curl-ups and arm circles and encourage them to stay away from soda and fried food.

The motivators also act as amateur psychologists, plumbing the recruits’ psyches for anything that might act as a catalyst. Maybe a few kind words will provide the spark a young person needs. Perhaps a speech from Mom or Dad, delivered over the telephone, will do the trick.

“Just about everything we deal with, it’s a mental thing,” said Senior Chief Antonio Mullins. “They look at the time and start to panic.”

Hawks’ continuing failure, Mullins said, was an apt illustration. The aspiring cyber-security specialist had been a speedy wide receiver in high school, but said he fell out of shape when he graduated two years ago because of the demands of community college and a full-time job.

After being sent to FIT, he changed his diet and worked out constantly. Yet time after time, he seemed incapable of gutting out the last few laps of the run, missing the cutoff by just a few seconds.

When he stopped running on April 16, Hawks appeared to be headed toward a similar result. But the motivators who encircled him doubled their shouts and he responded, breaking back into a trot that soon became a sprint.

“Everything!” Mullins bellowed as Hawks turned the final corner. “Everything!”

He crossed the line and the timing chip on his ankle captured the official result: 13 minutes 12 seconds. He had passed.

Success, though, meant that fitness was now his personal battle. There wouldn’t be any more motivators pushing him to do the right thing, and backsliding could be disastrous: Navy personnel who fail two fitness tests in two years lose the opportunity for promotion, and three failures get them kicked out.

But Hawks vowed that he had learned from his time in FIT, and that he would never again run so slowly. And then, for the first time that morning, he smiled.

“I’m stoked right now,” he said. “I’m just a little tired.”

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