Maj. Lisa Beum is a 2009 West Point graduate who went into the Military Police, transitioned to public affairs, and is currently serving at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
When it comes to the Army Combat Fitness Test, we need to ask ourselves, "Why?" Army leaders say the new ACFT is designed to make soldiers more combat effective. However, this implies that the Army has been combat ineffective for the last two decades.
I am not against changing physical standards for soldiers to make a gender-neutral physical fitness test, but the ACFT has undergone multiple revisions due to perceived favoritism toward one sex. Additionally, it is highly inefficient and discriminates against the older or slightly broken soldiers who still have a lot to offer.
The Army needs to seriously reconsider the current ACFT standards and ask why? Why are these changes being implemented? What was so bad about the gender-based Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT? If the only reason for the change is to make ourselves more combat effective, then that is a surprise because I did not realize we had been losing the fight at the tactical level for the past 20 years.
I do not speak for all women in the Army, but I am writing here to represent those who may be too afraid to show opposition to the ACFT, or even to respond to recent articles about the test by Capt. Shaina Coss and Capt. Kristen Griest -- who both passed Ranger School and became infantry officers -- for fear of being "that girl" or not being "tough enough."
The men and women I have spoken to who oppose the current ACFT standards are some of the toughest and fittest military professionals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing; I admire them greatly.
I do not want to take away from Griest and Coss' accomplishments, but they represent a very small, elite group of outstanding women. My concern is that many people listen to them, believing they are the Army's spokeswomen.
I know people will dismiss what I have to say because I am a public affairs officer and not an infantry officer. But if you have doubts about my capability or aptitude because I am a PAO and not infantry, please speak to anyone who knows me: superior, peer or subordinate.
The ACFT is a logistical nightmare, just as a 2018 article in War on the Rocks predicted that it would be. Many who have attempted the test, including myself, will attest that it takes up exponentially more time, resources, personnel, funding for equipment and space than the APFT.
It took four weekends to test 1,000 West Point cadets on the ACFT, with more than 100 faculty assisting every Saturday. Testing ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and required a great deal of extra equipment.
By comparison, the APFT required a stopwatch; clipboard; pen and paper; and approximately 100 graders. You could test 1,000 cadets in about two hours.
If we want to change things up, consider the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test. It is efficient and easy to run; uses available resources; and, yes, still has gender-based testing.
Besides being extremely inefficient, the ACFT does not take into consideration older soldiers, as it is age-neutral. Do we really expect 50-something generals and sergeants major to perform at the same physical level as a 22-year-old sergeant or lieutenant?
It's also a test that leans toward one sex over the other. Gender-neutral does not equal gender equality. For those ladies who either disagree with me or can do it all, I am truly proud of you, but please realize that you are the exception, not the norm.
Another alternative is simply to have a minimum standard with no maximum. For example, if you need five leg tucks to meet the standard, and you complete five, you should be good to go. Why even have a maximum? It sets unrealistic expectations for many body types, and units will use the ACFT as an incentive for other rewards. It is already happening in units across the Army, so if you are incapable of "yeeting" a 10-pound ball 13 meters behind your head, which replicates nothing we do in combat, you will never achieve that four-day pass the battalion commander is giving out for maxing your score.
In her article, Griest wrote that the old APFT standard jeopardized readiness in combat units. I have two issues with this comment.
First, we need to get away from this idea that there are two parts of the Army: combat arms and non-combat arms. We have been in combat for 20 years, and I dare say that every single branch and functional area has deployed to a combat zone. Every branch has seen combat at least once in the last 20 years. We are all combat troops at this point. The Army recently published TRADOC PAM 525-3-1, Multi-Domain Operations, which outlines integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail.
Soldiers from a number of jobs regarded as supportive in nature are assigned to traditional combat units. Those troops deploy with the infantry, conduct the same training, live in the same environment, are held to the same standards -- and, often, are involved in combat. I was the PAO for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; I was jumping, rucking and training with that brigade. It is an infantry BCT, but all the supporting elements, including the PAO, did everything as a unit.
Second, how can Griest claim that the APFT jeopardizes readiness in combat units?
The APFT standards did not decrease their readiness in combat. Thousands of women have been very successful, proving their worth and making our Army more combat-effective. Women have been thriving and leading from the front this whole time, so why do we need the ACFT now to prove ourselves and become even more combat-effective? We don't. Fitness is not a measure of competence.
I have always been an advocate for being in top physical shape: I scored 300s on my APFTs, led from the front with my platoon and kept up with the guys at the maneuver captains' career course. But I am never the best physically in any situation, and I am OK with that. It does not make me a bad officer and does not mean I am not driven.
The Army has a basic physical standard for a reason: to ensure that I am physically fit enough to meet the basic requirements of being a soldier. I, along with thousands of other men and women, have met those standards for years and have been flourishing. I bring value to the team with other talents and skills that my more fit counterparts do not necessarily possess. Our Army's greatest strength is our people and the diverse backgrounds, abilities and perspectives we provide.
I am 5 feet 3 inches tall, 133 pounds and fully aware that if I pushed myself harder, I could score higher on the ACFT and beat out a lot of the guys -- not all, but many. But at what cost? I pushed myself physically for many years to ensure I could keep up with the guys and be a good example to my soldiers. However, I am now one of those Army statistics: I have not only developed permanent back problems, but also suffer from infertility.
Although the Army has conducted studies to determine the percentage of women in the ranks with infertility, it does not know the cause and will not cover the costs for women to start a family beyond basic pill treatments. I am not alone in this plight. I do not blame the service at all for the choices I have made, but I wish I had been more informed about the prolonged effects of Army life on my body and the possible toll it could have on my wish to be a mother.
Before we start demanding more from women physically, we need to do more to ensure they are taken care of in the long run. Even among those who were lucky enough to be mothers in the military, I know many suffer from long-term effects of having to get in shape six months postpartum to complete an APFT and meet height and weight standards.
Thankfully, the Army has finally smartened up and delayed certain physical requirements to one full year postpartum. Still, I would like to see any man do a single leg tuck after enduring the physical trauma of childbirth. I think they would have a change of heart.
If the Army decides to keep gender-specific fitness testing, we will still be an effective service. Having two different physical standards for the genders is not the cause of disparities that may arise between men and women. It more likely stems from implicit biases that we may be unaware of and can correct by setting a good example.
I have changed many minds about being a woman, a public affairs officer and a soldier by working hard and being competent at my job. I add value and refuse to believe that men will judge me solely based on my physical performance. Will it play a factor? Yes. But by placing so much emphasis on this new physical standard, we send the message that being a good soldier and a good leader means scoring a 600 on the ACFT when we all know that is simply not true.
As the ACFT currently stands, even with the latest revisions, the Army could be eliminating an amazing fighting force, largely composed of women and older, seasoned soldiers. We need to reconsider.
Thank you to the women who came before me for creating a way for me and other women to follow, and thank you to the men who supported those ladies and me throughout our careers.
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