After the deaths of the two South Carolina airmen, it was clear to the Air Force that something needed to be changed.
Within a week of each other, 30-year-old Aaron Hall and 32-year-old Amalia Joseph died at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter from health issues after doing the mandatory fitness test this summer. Now, one of the Air Force's top men is considering reworking the way the branch structures their physical assessment.
Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, the highest enlisted member in the entire branch who makes policy decisions regarding all enlisted personnel, addressed the possible changes Wednesday at a conference in Maryland. Part of the Air Force's physical evaluation includes an abdominal circumference measurement prior to timed push-ups, sit-ups and a run. It wasn't uncommon for airmen to go on crash diets or starve themselves to have a smaller stomach size before being measured.
“We have airmen who go to great lengths to get a good score on the abdominal circumference,” Wright said at the conference. “So, they take certain things, they starve themselves, they go out of their way (to pass) because it counts for 20 percent of the test. And then they try to run or do the other components. ... We’ve had airmen that have lost their lives, we’ve had airmen that have become injured.”
Wright suggested separating the abdominal measurement and the physical tests by a week to mitigate health risks. His office originally had no set time on changing the standards by the time he retires in fall 2020, according to the Air Force Times. But Wright said, the changes could be in place in early 2020 or maybe even before the end of 2019.
Discussions of changing the physical assessment come in the wake of three physical fitness related deaths in the Air Force since the beginning of the year. The latest death was last month at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The other two airmen deaths happened between May 26 and June 1 at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter.
Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker said both Shaw airmen died as a result of health complications from the base’s physical fitness test. After their deaths, the base shut down physical training testing for two weeks while base leadership evaluated changes.
"During those two weeks, Physical Training Leaders reviewed their processes to ensure they are following appropriate procedures during PT testing," 2nd Lt. Sable Brown told The Post and Courier. "An additional PT test preparation training was developed and incorporated into the scheduling process to ensure all test takers are adequately prepared."
An airman’s abdominal measurement helps calculate a body composition score. The timed run makes up 60 percent of the testing score and one-minute counts of push-ups and sit-ups each make up 10 percent. Airmen have minimums requirements in each category and must get a score of at least 75 points to pass.
Other testing ideas suggested by Wright included a trial test, where airmen could do the full assessment within a certain window without it affecting their score.
“If you pass, good; if you don’t, no harm, no foul,” Wright said during the conference.
In states with record-high temperatures and humidity, such as South Carolina, the Air Force has tried to make military life more comfortable for enlisted members.
At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, Chief Master Sgt. Brent Salvadori suggested that maintenance airmen on the runway should wear shorts for aircraft mechanics whenever temperatures exceed 80 degrees outside. The idea of the shorts was floated at several bases with record-high temperatures, including Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida, and Beale and Edwards Air Force Bases in California.
Joint Base Charleston also said they were looking into the idea of mechanics wearing shorts on the flight line.
Heat stroke has been a major concern in the U.S. military in recent years. In 2008, 1,766 cases of heat stroke or heat exhaustion were seen among active-duty service members, according to a report by the Military Health System. By 2018, that figure had climbed to 2,792, an increase of almost 60 percent over 10 years.
South Carolina bases have seen physical testing deaths before. Staff Sgt. Richard Spofford, an Air Force reservist, died in 2014 at Joint Base Charleston after he was finishing his last lap on the running portion of the exam.