NOVEMBER 10, 2021 – The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps presented the Corps’ refreshed paradigm on fitness and readiness to a group of academia, tech industry representatives and military leaders on Oct. 27.
Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, the Corps’ top enlisted Marine and senior enlisted advisor to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, delivered a straight-forward message during the Tactical Athlete Human Factors Summit at Auburn University, Alabama: “The mind, body and spirit of a Marine are the main elements of the human weapons system, and this is what we must invest in.”
The Marine Corps has honed in on a new focus when it comes to total fitness and readiness. Nested under Marine Corps Training and Education Command, the Human Performance Branch is charged with developing, maintaining and improving programs that support the physical, mental, social and spiritual fitness – total fitness – of Marines. Human Performance is simply the investment in the Marines.
“Marines possess the capabilities and the determination to fight until victory is assured,” said Black. “We train, fight and win because of the mind, body and spirit of our people. Much like a piece of equipment, Marines require proper maintenance, resilience and long-term programs designed to lengthen their careers and invest in the training, education and experience they’ve gained. Marines are more important than any weapons systems, technology or mission. Marines are the system and they are the mission.”
The commandant’s Force Design 2030 calls for modernizing the force to meet the demands of today’s challenges by organizing, training and equipping the Marine Corps to respond to strategic competition. Black said Human Performance is key in supporting the commandant’s vision.
“By focusing on Human Performance, we are better able to manage talent and to attract, incentivize, grow and retain the elite warriors and families we need to accomplish the mission,” Black continued. “The Marine Corps, like all of the services, loses Marines for any number of reasons outside the normal end of active service or retirement. Known as non-[end of active service] attrition, the vast majority of losses are contributed to human performance factors. These include mental health, social and relationship issues, drugs and alcohol, and poor nutrition and sleep habits resulting in poor physical and job performance.”
The intent on the renewed investment on Marines is to foster resiliency across the total fitness spectrum: physical, mental, spiritual and social. In order to ensure Marines are always ready when called upon, the Marine Corps is emphasizing healthy behaviors and activities in all tenets of Human Performance.
“Our goal is to develop a more lethal warfighter. Those that can embrace these tenets, are the warfighters that I want making decisions on the battlefield,” said Sgt. Maj. Melissa Hawkins, the senior enlisted advisor at the Human Performance Branch. “Building resiliency allows our Marines to overcome combat stress and prevent non-battle injuries. It also helps prepare Marines to face the challenges they will encounter both in the Marine Corps and in life.”
Hawkins said each tenet of total fitness is interrelated and has direct impact on Marines remaining mission capable. It allows for the development of specific priorities unique to unit’s mission set and mission essential task lists. The overarching focus is to understand the role of each tenet and its impact on mission effectiveness.
“Our Marines are our greatest asset. They are confronted daily with considerable, sustained stressors that significantly impact their readiness,” said Hawkins, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy. “The framework of human performance and total fitness is what sets the conditions for how they show up for the day. We must achieve and sustain the peak physical, cognitive, and behavioral capabilities of our Marines as they execute essential military tasks in various operational environments.”
Sharpening a Marine’s cognitive capabilities has always been a focus for Marines – especially in preparing for or returning from combat deployments. In 2016, Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps during that time, stated that spiritual fitness plays a key role in resiliency, in the Marine’s ability to grow, develop, recover, heal and adapt.
“Regardless of individual philosophy or beliefs, spiritual well-being makes us better warriors and people of character capable of making good choices on and off duty,” said Gen. Neller in an all-hands message to the force. “By attending to spiritual fitness with the same rigor given to physical, social and mental fitness, Marines and Sailors can become and remain the honorable warriors and model citizens our nation expects.”
Reaffirming and continuing the message, Gen. David Berger, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, stated that clarity on core values enhances the Corps’ moral and ethical decision-making.
“Together with the other domains of fitness, spiritual fitness permits Marines and Sailors to draw upon collective spiritual resources in order to maintain their resiliency and demonstrate their character,” said Gen. Berger. “To ensure the continued health of our collective character and identity and maintain our reputation as elite warriors, I am reaffirming the importance of spiritual fitness. In addition to serving as models for their subordinates, leaders must champion efforts to instill spiritual fitness in order to advance character development across the Marine Corps and in support of my Commandant’s Planning Guidance.”
Aligning with the current and previous commandants’ direction, the Human Performance Branch, which is located at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, prioritizes in investing in the Marine.
The Marine Corps is already marching forward with Human Performance at the School of Infantry – East, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since March 2021, Marines going through the entry-level training pipeline have been completing the redesigned Infantry Marine Course. During the 14-week IMC program, Marine infantry students, consisting of mostly privates and privates first class, have access to the Human Performance Center, located conveniently in the headquarters building of SOI-East. Here, they have free range to use equipment, tools and guidance from professionals with the capabilities to advise Marines on the total fitness factors – from spiritual fitness to physical fitness. The Human Performance Center is a step in the direction of the Marine Corps’ top leaderships’ refreshed focus.
“SOI-E produced more physically fit Marines through the physical training program designed in unison with period of instruction development and event scheduling,” said Darin Peterson, the Human Performance Center SOI-East director. “Our approach also highlighted the fact that attrition due to musculoskeletal injury did not increase despite the Marines going through a more physically demanding course. There were many recovery sessions built into the program to account for physical load and total volume of training. In other words, a holistic physical development approach to do things smarter.”
The Human Performance Center also disseminates physical training plans to Marines in every course across SOI-East. The center’s strength and conditioning coaches provides oversight and program development with live inputs for each Marine. These training plans are influenced by the training tempo and are specific to a Marine’s physical fitness needs identified through physical assessments and course requirements. They are further targeted for each Marine if specific deficits are observed during initial testing that could lead to compounding effects if not addressed.
“For example, when a Marine has noted dysfunction with the movement of a hinge, if not addressed and corrected, this has potential for injury when lifting his or her pack or other heavy gear from the ground,” Peterson said.
Additionally, daily readiness levels are assessed for each Marine with the following input: nutritional status, sleep and quality of sleep, stress levels, and soreness to allow for more informed conversations with the Marines. Real-time data drives decisions of combat instructors and Human Performance professionals regarding programming and current training loads.
Hawkins said it should be the priority of all leaders to prevent performance declines due to physical overload, nutritional deprivation, lack of sleep, environmental and operational stressors, musculoskeletal injuries, and declines in adaption.
“Is fitness a hobby or a requirement?” Black asked the audience at the summit.
He explained that Marines typically cater their workouts to their own preference, but the workouts aren’t necessarily tailored for their job. He gave the example that he often ran, deadlifted, performed back squats and various other exercise that didn’t necessarily help him as a machine gunner, his original specialty in the Marine Corps. He continued to say it most likely contributed to more wear, tear and stress on his body.
“If we tailor fitness to strengthen the Marine’s capabilities in her job, or even her overall abilities as a Marine who should be ready to fight and win at a moment’s notice, then physical fitness will assist the Marine’s longevity in her job field. Thus, we can call this a requirement,” Black said. “Until then, fitness is typically a hobby.”
The Human Performance Branch website (www.fitness.marines.mil) offers resources for fitness programs, resiliency information and sports medicine injury prevention.
Master Sgt. Michael Cifuentes
Headquarters Marine Corps