Close to the DMZ, Soldiers focus on functional fitness, readiness
CAMP CASEY, South Korea -- As the Army pushes toward new physical training standards, a small group of Soldiers who perform garrison roles at this remote post near the demilitarized zone, where there has been an emerging outlook on peace, is already looking to surpass them.
The Soldiers, who mainly work at the on-post photo lab, break the monotony of their duty day with PT sessions up to three times a day. Much of the sessions revolve around functional fitness, a form of exercise Army officials say prepares Soldiers to conduct combat tasks.
"We're not just focusing on the major muscle groups for pushups, situps and preparing for a PT test," said Sgt. 1st Class Francisco Rodriguez, who leads the sessions. "We prepare for real-world movements: squatting, jumping, high levels of energy when doing these exercises … to make sure we are staying ahead of where the Army wants us to be."
Functional fitness has gained popularity in recent years since it allows users to get a better-rounded workout using an array of equipment.
Army senior leaders are considering the Army Combat Readiness Test following a pilot at several installations. The six-event assessment gauges Soldiers on the 10 components of physical fitness: muscular strength and endurance, power, speed, agility, aerobic endurance, balance, flexibility, coordination and reaction time.
The new test, which relies heavily on functional fitness, is designed to reduce injuries and may eventually replace or supplement the current three-event Army Physical Fitness Test. That test has been around since 1980 and only measures muscular and aerobic endurance.
If and when the new test does roll out, Rodriguez, the NCOIC of the Visual Information Support Center here, and his Soldiers believe they will perform well on it.
"When it gets to that point, we'll be prepared for it," said Spc. Dacotah Lane, a combat photographer at the center. "Because to me, [the current PT test] doesn't do enough for you. You're strengthening three areas of your body, really. This lets us do different areas and keep ourselves in shape."
Another motivating factor for their strenuous exercises has been readiness, one of the Army's top priorities.
Being stationed in South Korea is unique compared to many other Army assignments. While assignments in other locations are two or three years, Soldiers usually serve just one year on the Korean Peninsula. Those 12 months are spent conducting realistic readiness exercises and training on critical individual soldiering skills.
Just over 10 miles from the DMZ, Soldiers at Camp Casey, which is part of Area I, are among the closest to the historic border between North Korea and South Korea. Area I is a collection of U.S. bases located between Seoul and the border.
As the northernmost U.S. Army garrison in the country, Camp Casey is home to combat arms Soldiers including those from rotational units deployed to this strategic post tucked in between rolling hills. While they strive to keep fit and ready, so do other Soldiers at the garrison who work in offices rather than the field.
"We have to make sure we are doubling and tripling our efforts," Rodriguez said, "in order to maintain bearing and physical fitness with the units that are out here."
Three gyms serve personnel stationed at Camp Casey. One is the Health and Human Performance Center, which was deemed a state-of-the-art fitness facility when it opened in 2013. Inside are kettle bells, tractor tires, medicine balls, total body resistance exercise systems, and other equipment for functional fitness.
"The center was opened in 2013 and quickly became a successful part of our Sport and Fitness Program," said Jammie Hawkins, director of U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation. "Commanders and Soldiers alike raved about the center and the valuable fitness, strengthening and self-led program it delivered to our warfighters."
Since then, mini-versions of the functional fitness center have been exported to other Area I installations. Hawkins' office has also helped other U.S. Army garrisons in South Korea establish their own programs.
Due to Camp Casey's remote location, Modesto Algarin, a supervisory sports specialist, plans several events over the year so Soldiers can maintain an active lifestyle. There are intramural sports, races, and even a recent competition that had Soldiers vie in functional fitness.
"We're separate from the rest of Korea in many ways," Algarin said. "This is not a traditional base where you have that structure of MWR. This is a little different, but we try to have a lot of events for the Soldiers and keep them busy and resilient."
He said he admires Rodriguez's team and others who try to squeeze in workouts during lunch or afterhours.
"They're using the facilities and increasing the participation and that is really good for us," Algarin said. "If the facilities are not used, there is no need to have them open."
Rodriquez, 36, of Bronx, New York, said he has noticed the installation's efforts toward fitness and also within his own team.
In his previous assignment, he was an instructor at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Maryland. While there, he admitted his PT dropped off a bit as he served in an advanced training environment.
"I let myself go," he said. "When I got here I had to change my mentality."
He purchased fitness equipment and chose not to bring a vehicle over to South Korea, so he could walk or run to work or the gym. "I figured if I'm going to go anywhere I might as well get my cardio in," he said.
Within three months of being in country, his PT score jumped nearly 30 points to 271. His next goal is to max out the test, he said.
It was his Soldiers, though, who came up with the idea to conduct extra PT sessions.
Similar to how Soldiers tend to exercise more while deployed, Lane, 24, of Crosby, Minnesota, said that mentality has taken over their office.
"We're here for a year and away from everything," said Lane, who decided to come unaccompanied while his wife stayed behind. "This takes up our time, instead of sitting in our rooms bored."
The PT sessions also bring the team closer, he said. That has led to them taking weekend trips to discover the country together, whether it be shopping in Seoul, going on a DMZ tour or even windsurfing on a nearby river.
The garrison commander has taken notice of their teamwork and plans to start a running group based off of their lunchtime workouts, Rodriguez said.
"I didn't just walk in here and start pushing out motivation to the team," Rodriguez said. "I was lucky enough to walk in with a team that was already motivated to do things. They just needed direction."