SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – “PT for them was getting ‘smoked every day,’” said Staff Sgt. Shawn Briggs, 366th Training Squadron explosive ordnance disposal preliminary course instructor.
The term “getting smoked” refers to exercising in a continuous manner to the point of physical exhaustion.
For the Airmen attending the 26-day EOD preliminary school at Sheppard Air Force Base, before January 2018, getting smoked was their daily morning routine.
The EOD preliminary school was designed to filter out the best candidates to go on to the Navy School Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin AFB, Florida, and weed out those who didn’t meet standards.
“Being here and passing shows that you deserve to be an EOD candidate,” said Airman 1st Class Margaret Sowell, EOD preliminary course student. “It shows you have what it takes.”
For the students, the daily rigors of intense physical training started to take its toll and more candidates were dropping from the program or getting injured.
“Injuries were costing the Air Force a lot of money and most of the attrition was coming from injuries and self-eliminations,” said Master Sgt. Joshua Crowley, 366th TRS EOD preliminary course superintendent. “We had 100 to 150 students that were on injury profiles at any given time here.”
Injury profiles prevented students from participating in physical training, which, in turn, prevented them from attending class.
“It’s about $215 a day to house and feed each student,” Crowley said. “When they are stuck here for close to half a year, it adds up.
With profiles lasting on average from 90 to 100 days and the high demand from the Air Force for EOD technicians, something had to change.
Crowley said they met with 82nd training Wing commander Brig. Gen Ronald Jolly Sr. and were asked by the senior leader what they needed to turn the tide.
That’s when Jolly mentioned P4 initiatives, programs that can be Public-Public or Public-Private ventures. In this case, it was the Air Force and civilian organizations collaborating to get something accomplished without spending a bunch of money.
“We had exercise physiologists from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, observe our PT program and make suggestions on how we can prevent injuries,” Crowley said. “Just that would have cost us about $750,000 to $800,000, but we get it for free.”
After observing their PT sessions for a few months, they developed a new PT program to reduce injury and enhance performance.
“They sent their graduate students here from MSU,” Briggs said. “They were able to say, ‘Hey, the order that you’re doing these things is causing the injuries.’”
Along with developing a new PT program, the graduate students also trained instructors on physical education.
Before instructors are allowed to teach a class, they have to complete and pass a basic instructor course.
“Most of the instructors don’t have formal training in physical fitness outside of what they’ve done in their Air Force career,” Briggs said. “The whole purpose behind the P4 initiative was to make PT make more sense.”
Most injuries were the result of the ruck march portion of PT. The students would carry a weighted pack on their back and march several miles without stopping.
“They start out with about 35 pounds with a 15 pounds vest and then move to 45 pounds of weight in their ruck,” Briggs said. “Rucking was causing about three to four injuries a week.”
Briggs mentioned that they still put the same stress on them, but they allow more recovery time and focus on different parts of the body for their workouts.
“We ruck once or twice a week now and give them more time to recover,” Briggs said. “It’s nearly eliminated the injuries. We’ve only had one or two this year.”
Along with creating a new PT program, a new physical test called the Physical Abilities Identifier was implemented at the very first day of class to better gauge where the students were physically.
“If you don’t pass the PAI, then you don’t get to start class,” Briggs said. “The Candidate Development and Support Service is here with the sole purpose of training them physically if they fail the PAI.”
The CDSS builds candidates up physically to better prepare them for the rigors of the training ahead.
“It’s still a physically demanding career field, that hasn’t changed. But we turned it more into a progression thing now,” Briggs said. “If you’re not a PT stud when you get here, that’s ok. As long as you’re willing to push yourself and put in the work, you have time for improvement.”
Along with an improved PT regimen and civilian PT trainers, the preliminary course has also added a clinic to the EOD compound.
“We have mental health come out here to help with our self-eliminations, medics are out here during PT and physical therapy to help students when they start to feel injured,” Crowley said. “Basically everything you could get at the medical group besides labs and an x-ray, you can get out here.”
A medical residency program at Eglin AFB, is tracking the program with plans of implementing it at NAVSCOLEOD.
“Prior to us starting this new program, we had people all over us wondering why we keep breaking students and our attrition rate kept spiraling out of control,” Crowley said. “Now we have a graduation record and the school is running perfectly.”
In total, the changes made to the course have saved the Air Force $2.6 million and have resulted in a 35-percent decrease in medical holds, 42-percent drop in self-eliminations, 900-percent increase in support with no cost to the Air Force and a 50-percent decrease in medical and discipline eliminations.