The APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) consists of three events: 2 minutes of pushups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. There are rumors that the test will be changed soon. These rumors are apparently as old as the test itself. Each event is scored on a scale of 100, and you must receive at least 60 points on each event in order to pass. If you just barely scraped by you’d have a combined score of 180 (60 points on 3 events. Still with me? I know, it’s early for math).
My goal for the summer was to score at least 75 on each event, for a total score of no less than 225. This was a fairly random goal; I just wanted to do better than the minimum without being unrealistic.
We’ve been training all summer, of course, including three previous “diagnostic” APFTs. If we had run anymore diagnostics it would have been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Right?! Nobody got this joke when I told it in class, but I think it’s hilarious. Any other 37 year old nerds out there?). This past Thursday morning my platoon had its turn at the final, on record, for credit, APFT.
At 5:00 in the morning, the temperature was 85 degrees. The humidity was about 80%.
The pushups come first. About 10 NCOs (Non-commissioned officers) who are not part of our class are present as graders. We line up in lines of about 8, all facing away from the graders, and one at a time we’re called forward to do as many pushups as we can in 2 minutes. To score 75% I needed 49 pushups (the scoring scale is adjusted for gender and age, I just make the 37 to 41 category for males). Adrenaline must count for something, because my previous best was 52, and last Thursday I made it to 60 (87%). I was lightheaded and soaked in sweat already, but it was a good start.
Sit-ups work pretty much the same way, except I really dislike sit-ups. I needed 52 (no idea why they think I can do more sit-ups than pushups) to get my 75th percentile, and just eked out 53 (76%) when the time ran out.
Once everyone is finished with the first 2 events we march over to the track for the run. Everyone gets a colored and numbered jersey to wear over their PT uniform, so the NCO grading you can record your laps and final time. On our track 2 miles is three laps plus a little. There’s a big digital clock at the side to show you how you’re doing as you run by. Again, the scale is sliding based on age and gender. To pass I needed to run 18:18. To get my 75% goal I needed 16:30.
I’m no stranger to running. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I can do it for quite awhile actually. I ran a couple triathlons when I was living in Kansas City (olympic length, not ironman), and for one the run portion was 8 miles long. I’m not real fast though. At 9 to 10 minutes per mile I could run 5 or 6 miles at the beginning of the summer no problem.
Getting faster has been painful. Just running at a comfortable pace won’t speed you up. The way you get faster is to run faster. So we’ve been running this summer and pushing the pace like crazy. We do hill sprints, and intervals, and the dreaded “Drill Sergeant Hill”. My previous best time during diagnostics was 15:56, the fastest I’d ever run. I was hoping to burn that down into the 15:30s somewhere.
I normally start slow and get faster as I run, which seems to be the minority approach. As the group starts out I’m generally in the back, then after the first lap I’m all warmed up and start passing people. This time I pushed it hard the whole way. Measuring by exertion I figured I’d be well ahead of my previous best. In the end I took just 8 seconds off my time and came in at 15:48 (81%). Those 8 seconds were the hardest 8 seconds I’ve ever worked off. I’m blaming the weather. It’s difficult to run fast when you’re breathing hot, wet air.
The weather took its toll on others as well. One of our class didn’t finish. He’d come into the course back in May way out of shape and worked all summer to get within striking distance of a passing time in the run. He needed 18:42 minimum, and as the clock ticked over between the 17th and 18th minute, he was just 100 yards short of the finish line. We all thought he had it made, then he just collapsed on the track. The rule on the run is that you can’t touch someone to help them or they get disqualified. Our platoon sergeant ran over to him and yelled for him to get up. Several of us were right there with her. He was so close. He tried to rise, and fell again. Then we switched from finish-the-run mode to first aid.
All summer long we’ve been hauling around these coolers with us, one per platoon. Each cooler is filled with a solution of 70% ice and 30% water (don’t ask how we measure that, because we don’t, but its the Army, so there has to be a rule) and 4 bedsheets. We call them “Ice Sheets”, and the idea is that if someone is a heat casualty, you whip out the sheets and wrap the person up, cooling them down quickly. We all kinda thought they were silly, and frequently joked about ice-sheeting someone who was just being lazy on a run. Guess they have their uses after all.
He’s still in the hospital this weekend. He’s doing all-right, but he’s probably not coming back to finish the course.
So it turns out being an Army Chaplain is hard. Before you can even do anything chaplain-y you have to be fit enough to keep up with your congregation. I try to imagine being back at church and after the Gospel reading, someone yells out, “Everyone down! Give me 50 before the sermon!” and I have to deliver the message all sweaty and out of breath. Of course, that doesn’t happen in Army chapels either, but the model for Army Chaplaincy isn’t to get soldiers to chapel, it’s to get Chaplains to soldiers. If you can’t hang with the world’s best warriors you won’t be there when they need their chaplain. It doesn’t matter how good a preacher you are if your parishioners, wearing 80 to 100 pounds of combat gear each, have out run you.
So I passed the APFT, and I met my goal. Exceeded it actually, with 244 out of 300 points. They’ll give you a PT badge if you can score 90 in each event, so that’s my next challenge. I suspect I’m going to have to loose some weight before that challenge becomes attainable.
This next week we are “in the field”. There’s a pretend Forward Operating Base (FOB) here at Fort Jackson. Tuesday morning at 5am (because when else would you start anything in the Army?) we’ll march the 4 miles to FOB Victory and occupy it for the week. They say the tents are air-conditioned but I’m not holding my breath. This is the other half of the chaplain’s physical challenge: not only do you have to be fit enough to keep up, you have to endure the same conditions and suffering that the soldiers do, and THEN you have to be the guy that stays positive and cares for others instead of sitting and complaining. There’s no sliding scale for that, but it might even be more important.
Platoon Sergeant: Here we go again!
Gaggle of Marching Chaplains: Here we go again!
P.S.: Same old stuff again!
G.o.M.C.: Same old stuff again!
P.S.: Walking down this avenue!
G.o.M.C.: Walking down this avenue!
P.S.: Four More Weeks and We’ll Be Through!
G.o.M.C.: Four More Weeks and We’ll Be Through!
P.S.: I won’t have to look at you!
G.o.M.C.: I won’t have to look at you!
P.S.: You won’t have to look at me!
G.o.M.C.: You won’t have to look at me!
P.S.: Am I right or wrong?
G.o.M.C.: You’re right!
P.S.: Are we weak or strong?
G.o.M.C.: We’re strong!
P.S.: Sound off!
G.o.M.C.: One! Two!
P.S.: Sound off!
G.o.M.C.: Three! Four!
P.S.: Bring it on down!
G.o.M.C.: One, two, three, four, one, two… Three, Four!
This is one of the various cadences we sing while marching around Fort Jackson. Since the end of our first phase of training there is a lot less marching around in general, but we still get a bit every morning as we assemble and move out for PT (aka Physical Training). (We sing the “chaplain version” of the Army cadences, swearing removed and rated G for our sensitive ears I guess.) This particular cadence is fun because it reminds you how many weeks are left in your training period. Four more weeks and I’ll be through!
The phase of training we’re in right now includes lots of homework. Morning PT continues unrelentingly, but otherwise it’s all classes, practical exercises, and homework. This past week focused on memorials of all kinds. We wrote mini-sermons/messages for Memorial Ceremonies (generally patriotic and not religious), Memorial Services (more religious), and Graveside/Committal Services (very short and more religiousy). We traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to visit the Air Force Base there, where we got a tour of their C-17 aircraft and practiced the Ramp Ceremony which accompanies the loading or unloading of fallen heroes onto aircraft for transport. We had presentations on Military Funerals and the various military honors accorded veterans and retired military personnel and their dependents. Yesterday a representative from Fort Jackson’s National Cemetary spoke to us, and in the afternoon under the overbearing sun we observed a practice committal service.
The funny thing about practicing all these somber events is that the practice emotion can get pretty real. I’ve been vaguely sad all week at strange points. It was suggested that when writing our practice memorials we pick someone we knew to memorialize rather than just make up some details. It seemed morbid to memorialize a living friend, so I went back and remembered some of the people I’ve buried in the past twelve years; people I haven’t thought of in quite some time. It was good to recall some missing faces, but heavy. Very heavy. That was the theme of the week, really—the moral and spiritual weight of the burden my chaplain brothers and sisters and I have volunteered to heft.
There are so many aspects of this summer that I want to share, but time for reflection is scarce, and time to write on things that aren’t due in two day’s time is even more scarce. I’m starting to put together a presentation to share with folks this Fall. I’m sure the good people of CECoP will be subjected to this, but anyone who asks will get to see it. It will be like my summer vacation slide show that all the relatives dread sitting through.
For this week I’d like to leave you with a quick story of something that happened a few weeks back. I’m leaving names and a few details out of this to protect the innocent.
One of the many reasons that people volunteer to join U.S. military services is that doing so provides a clear and somewhat expedited path through our messy immigration processes. It isn’t automatic or easy or anything, and it seems a reasonable reward for volunteering to do a difficult and dangerous job. Several of the chaplains in my class are foreign nationals, working through various portions of the naturalization process.
A couple weeks ago one of the members of my platoon completed that process and was sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America. We didn’t get to see the actual ceremony, but it was announced at the close of the day and we all cheered. Later, with the class dismissed and just our platoon meeting for a bit of last-minute business, we decided to welcome our new citizen Army style.
It is traditional in the Army that when someone has a birthday, they get to do push-ups while everyone sings happy birthday to them. The rule is that they have to keep pushing until the song ends, so you can get some pretty slow renditions of the happy birthday tune. Usually, the poor victim—I mean birthday boy/girl—has completed a dozen push-ups before the word “Happy” has been sung. It was suggested and approved by unanimous acclaim that our new citizen do push-ups while we sang the National Anthem.
You’ve probably never really thought about it (I know I hadn’t), but the National Anthem is kind of long. Even though we mercifully sang it at regular speed, our poor new citizen had more pushing to do that he had bargained on that late in a day.
Thing is, what started mostly as a joke quickly became something a great deal more. Like most Americans, my experience of the National Anthem is of standing there waiting for a sporting event to begin. While respecting the nation and values it is meant to represent, hardly anyone would call it a beautiful song. The most interesting part is generally seeing what poor B-list or local celebrity they’ve gotten to do the singing, since no way are we going to sing it.
But there weren’t any B-list celebrities available that afternoon at the U.S. Chaplain Center and School, so we sang it for ourselves, and for our new fellow citizen. And we sang it well. America the Beautiful has always been able to get a tear out of me, but the National Anthem never had. Our platoon is about 30 people, and there were a few more scattered around the room and a few more out in the hallway. By the time we had sung “home of the brave” there were more than fifty people standing at attention singing their hearts out. It was quite a moment.
I’m guessing our new citizen’s arms were a bit rubbery that evening. I’m also guessing it was worth it.
I was supposed to be home this morning.
At the beginning of the summer the plan was for me to be here in South Carolina for the full 13 weeks of the Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course. Jieun and I had resigned ourselves to the term of separation. It would be too hard to get all the way across the country over a weekend, especially since my weekend would be Saturday-Sunday (an oddity for someone so used to Sunday being the biggest work day of the week) and hers Friday-Saturday.
Two weeks ago my friend Elsa died. This was the one exception I’d said I’d make to my sabbatical leave. If Elsa should die this summer (a sad but distinct possibility when I left) I would do all I could to be there. ‘All I could do’ turned out to include five layers of the chain of command and a complicated process of paperwork and permission giving. We got it worked out and I bought a ticket.
Yesterday I was sitting at the airport here in Columbia, SC. I’d come straight from class and was wearing my uniform. Columbia is a small airport and often full of military personnel. While waiting for the flight that would hop me up to Charlotte, NC I had the chance to talk to a group of newly graduated basic trainees who were on their way to Monterey, California to attend language school. They’d been assigned Arabic. Not chosen, but assigned. I thought this was pretty funny, in a typically Army way, and joked that maybe they should do that with Chaplains too: I could just go to chaplain school and the Army could assign me whatever religion they needed me to cover. They thought that was pretty funny and followed up with some jokes of their own about how maybe I should learn Arabic too. Another group of recent graduates overheard us and it turned out that they were all newly minted Chaplain Assistants, so we got to talking about our training and the Unit Ministry Team (UMT) job that they would share with a chaplain like me.
I was feeling pretty good about this little practice session of Army Chaplaincy (this is a big part of the chaplain job, just being with soldiers and making connections) when the PA announced that thunderstorms had shut down Charlotte and our flight was being delayed indefinitely. The whole East Coast was getting slowed down or stopped by thunderstorms. When I got to the front of the line at the counter it turned out that there was no way to get me to the West Coast that evening, and the best they could do the next morning would be to get me there after lunch, if there was a seat left (everyone was rescheduling at the same time), but that would be too late for Elsa’s funeral, and too short a stay-over for the Military to be comfortable with had I asked permission.
I made some pretty hard phone calls. Elsa’s husband, true to form, said he was sorry I couldn’t be there then proceeded to try and make me feel better. The priest shepherding the parish while I’m away graciously moved to handle the details and rituals of the service itself. My wife and I, conscious that the reason for my visit had been that funeral, shed a few tears that we wouldn’t get to see each other after all, a gift we hadn’t been looking for but for the past two weeks had been very much looking forward to.
I went back to the hotel room I’m living in, conscious for the first time in weeks that it really is a hotel room and not a home. I sat and hurt for awhile before reporting in, informing my chain of command that I wouldn’t be using my 3 day pass after all.
I’m still a bit numb this morning. I feel like I’m in the wrong place, sitting here at this desk instead of waking up in my own bed next to my wife, preparing for a funeral service that is going to be very hard but that I long to be a part of.
One of the topics we hit in several different ways this week was suffering. You can’t tell someone that suffering is God’s plan (even if you think it is) and you can’t tell someone that they should learn from their pain (even if people sometimes do). Someone close to Elsa shared a letter they’d written with me this week, in which they rejected the oft proffered advice, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Their response to this bit of crap was, “As much as it hurts, and however helpless at times you felt, I know that God wasn’t deliberately putting you through all of this just to reward you for being such a strong [person].”
The lesson for me in this is an object lesson in the kinds of sacrifices soldiers make all the time. Serving in the military means missing really important events in the lives of people you love. Even when the Army is willing to let you go (for 3 days anyway), the challenges and requirements of military life make being present complicated. One thing goes wrong, and you miss a child’s birthday, a graduation, an anniversary, a funeral. My job is to be present in these times of hurt and missed opportunities, to bring a bit of holiness to the sacrifice and suffering, to carry out the chaplain’s mission: nurture the living, comfort the wounded, and honor the dead.
I guess sometimes it’s me I get to help through a tough time.
From what I understand, having the fourth of July fall on a Wednesday is just about the only way to NOT get a four day holiday out of the US Army. It makes for a strange week: two days on, one day off, two days on, weekend! Ah well, I won’t complain. I got to sleep in to six o’clock in the morning!
Last Friday we finished up Phase I, the second of the four classes I’m taking this summer. Phase I was a two week course in how to be a staff officer. Part of what makes Army Chaplaincy such an interesting job is that it is really two jobs: clergy and officer. We are learning to apply our clergy skills (preaching, pastoral care, leading worship, teaching, etc.) to the military context. Meanwhile, we are also learning how to serve a military commander as an expert advisor. Did I take a class in seminary about the historical interaction of Christianity and Islam in Syria? No I did not. Might I need to be an expert on this subject in the near future? Yes. Yes I probably will. Also, I need to be able to educate and advise some seriously high-power people on this (and other similar) topics clearly, quickly, and in the proper format. Good thing I’ve always found comparative religion an interesting topic because there is an awful lot of reading in my future.
It’s that “proper format” piece that dominated Phase I. We practiced writing Army Memorandums (Formal, for those outside our command; Informal for those within our command; Memorandums for Record, to create a personal accountability trail; and plain old Letters, for writing to you civilian types). Good thing I have a high tolerance for minutia is all I have to say about that. We practiced filling out various forms (just a few of the most popular. I suspect no one living person knows how to fill out every Army form). And we had the opportunity to assemble and present a briefing. Those of you at Christ Church in Puyallup know how much I enjoy the flashy extras of Power Point. Apparently the Army is less amused by chalk-dust explosions on the entry of novelty fonts.
I’ve had more than my fair share of practice too. At the beginning of each new class a few class leadership positions are shifted around. With no prior military experience I’m in no danger of being apportioned serious responsibility, but someone must have figured I could handle paperwork. For the past two weeks I’ve been my platoon’s S-1 officer. In a real unit the S-1 handles all matters pertaining to personnel. It’s a huge job. In a class platoon its mostly keeping track of authorized absences (unauthorized absences quickly rise to more serious levels of authority) and getting birthday cards for people. It gives me a chance to practice my memo skills as well as my spreadsheet prowess.
This past Monday we started Phase II. The training schedule doesn’t say what the theme of each class is, so I’m not sure exactly what the overall flavor of the next three and a half weeks will be. So far we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about Religious Area Assessments (which is where you get to become an expert in the religious history and culture of some area before your unit goes there). The classes continue to be interesting, and the whole course continues to be a bit like drinking from a fire-hose, as they say. I’m trying to get a bucket to catch some of the drink I’m unable to swallow, but I have a feeling there will be much to re-cover when I get home.
In the next couple weeks I’m planning to write a bit about two topics which you might find interesting. First, I want to tell you about the kinds of people I’m seeing as military chaplains. For someone who’s known a LOT of clergy in his life, the personalities here are pretty amazing. Second, I want to spend some more time reflecting on the interfaith/interdenominational approach to religion practiced in the military. Both of those subjects to come.
For now I’ll close with a couple links I’d recommend for following the Episcopal Church’s General Convention which starts today. Or maybe yesterday; the schedule is confusing. The official site is here
. It’s pretty sterile, but you can find official schedules and documents. Of more interest is Bishop Rickel’s blog
, where he promises to post daily. His opening reflection is a good one, and sets the tone almost exactly as I would in terms of optimism and serious concern for our church. The other site you might enjoy is one I’ve recommended before, Crusty Old Dean
. He has copious words for you, and they are good, but hard, words. The Episcopal Church is sailing dangerous waters these days, and this General Convention is a place many of us are hoping will haul the tiller over and set a new course.
That’s it for now. Enjoy your holiday!