JUNE 2, 2023 – The Connecticut Army National Guard’s Fitness Improvement Program (FIP), run by 2nd Lt. Jeremy Slen and Staff Sgt. Ashton Christopher, intends to revitalize Army fitness culture and improve the holistic health of Guard members.
In the past, Soldiers who were struggling with their physical fitness or failing to pass their physical fitness tests, resulting in being barred from reenlisting or other career advancement opportunities, were given generic, one-size-fits-all workout plans. These cookie-cutter plans rarely worked. With this new program, the FIP team gets to know the Soldier, identify the source of their deficiencies and work with them to tackle the issue.
The team looks at Soldiers’ nutrition, spiritual health, and risk factors that could negatively impact their well-being.
“What we really tailor on is focus,” Christopher said. “Putting our energy into each individual Soldier, utilizing motivational interviewing and helping them develop their own plan based off of their life and their environment.”
After FIP staff mentor the Soldiers, they are put into a working group with other Soldiers to work out and motivate each other.
On Oct. 18, 2021, Sgt. Isaac Rodriguez of the 1048th Medium Transportation Company entered his work group of seven. Unable to reenlist for six years and denied a bonus, he was required to join FIP to continue serving.
“It was during COVID,” Rodriguez said. “Things were going downhill. It was a really discouraging moment in my life.”
It was so discouraging that Rodriguez nearly quit the course upon hearing he had to do a preliminary height and weight exam and Army Physical Fitness Test, the standard Army test at the time. If a Soldier fails either test, they are flagged and unable to promote, receive awards or reenlist. Fail twice, and the Army would discharge the Soldier.
“He almost left the course in the very beginning because he didn’t want that [to be flagged and possibly separated] to happen,” Christopher recalled. “But he stuck with it.”
Rodriguez failed his preliminary PT test, but that would be one of his last failures before the wind hit his sails. He began taking his regimen very seriously, losing 4.4 pounds in two weeks and 7.2 pounds about one month after starting. When he ended the three-month program in January 2022, Rodriguez had shed 42.2 pounds, the most of anybody in the program.
Rodriguez also found solace in talking to the instructors.
“I got out of a pretty bad relationship, all my stuff in the back seat. It was the break I needed,” he said. “I was really comfortable speaking with them. I didn’t have as much of an outlet back home. They were really understanding.”
Rodriguez was so inspired, he set his sights on becoming a nutritional health coach to help others as the FIP team had helped him. He signed up for nutritional health coaching classes with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, or IIN.
“I was motivated to help individuals as a whole because it’s more than just eating right and working out; it’s figuring out how to take things day by day,“ said Rodriguez. “How the program is scheduled, how it’s laid out, yeah there is nutrition and a workout portion, but there’s also a big mental health factor, like resiliency, positive self-talk, how important sleep is, coping with stress.”
Those additional skills would soon come in handy, as not long after completing the program, his cousin died by suicide.
Rodriguez persevered. Now, he aids his fellow Soldiers. Having graduated IIN, he is part of the FIP team and has taught two classes since January.
“As an instructor, he can relate to the students,” said Christopher. “He knows how to talk to them because he was just there [struggling with his mental health].”
This combination of training and experience has already proved invaluable. Rodriguez has been able to help other Soldiers in the program with their physical, emotional and mental health.
“I had a Soldier come up to me and ask to speak to me offline. They were going through something themselves,” explained Rodriguez. “Due to my resilience, and my cousin passing away from suicide, I had the right words to say, the right empathetic words to say, to help them out in that situation. After we were done talking, I made them work out with me, and I asked them if they wanted to speak to BH [Behavioral Health], and they went and spoke to BH the next day and got some help.”
Being able to make a difference matters to Rodriguez.
“It’s encouraging,” explained Rodriguez. “It’s just heartfelt to know I’m a part of making a change in someone’s life.”
Slen and Christopher are working to be proactive by building relations with incoming Connecticut National Guard Soldiers, part of the Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP), and with future leaders of the Connecticut Army National Guard, Soldiers participating in Officer Candidate School.
By Sgt. Matthew Lucibello
130th Public Affairs Detachment