Tom Ricks linked to a great article on CompanyCommand.com (only available to those with an AKO address, sorry) which listed eight lessons to learn before going to Afghanistan.
The number one lesson that almost every commander listed was the importance of physical conditioning. Even the most well-conditioned troops get fatigued while patrolling in the thin mountain air of Afghanistan on foot, laden with heavy body armor, helmets, ammunition, water, radios, and night-vision devices.
Unfortunately, although the fitness standards are still the same as they have been for the past ten years, they're considerably less strictly enforced now, in an attempt to keep more troops in uniform. Soldiers graduating from Basic Training are no longer required to pass their physical
fitness test (which consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a two-mile run). Instead, they are told that, upon graduation, they have a year to pass their physical fitness test, placing the burden of conditioning them on their first unit.
If a Soldier can't get in shape with a drill sergeant hovering over him--making him do push-ups and monitoring his diet strictly--it will be that much more difficult to get him into proper shape in the relative freedom of their first unit, when they can eat whatever they want at the dining facility, and have weekends to play World of Warcraft non-stop.
This doesn't mean that it's impossible to get a Soldier in shape--certainly, I met quite a few who worked diligently and passed their physical fitness test upon arrival in my company. But it's that much more difficult to do so. Not to mention that it's become that much more difficult to chapter overweight or unfit troops out of the Army once they're in (see picture above).
With that said, since we're basically forced to go to war with the Army we have, and not the one we wish we had, we need some new ways to get Soldiers used to the conditions in Afghanistan. One of the best training events I ever took part in involved some winter survival training in the mountains near Lake Placid, New York. You know, we're the 10th Mountain Division, so we had to do something, well, mountain-like.
Anyway, the training event involved climbing up one of the mountains in the area (was it Whiteface Mountain?). Not only did we have to deal with the thin mountain air--a mere increase in altitude of 3,000 feet will sap one's stamina like you wouldn't believe--but we also
had to learn how to properly layer our clothes so we wouldn't overheat,
sweat, and get our winter clothing wet, leading to further cold-
weather injuries. On the way down the mountain, we used our survival GPS to navigate, just like we would do if we were shot down. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I also slipped and slid pretty much all over the face of the mountain. But hey, it made for a quick trip back down, so suck it)
It was quite a fun training event, and it was excellent conditioning for the mountains of Afghanistan. I highly recommend this to anyone going there. Apparently, we aviators in the North Country weren't the only ones doing this sort of training--a number of tankers at Fort Stewart, Georgia, found out that they would be fighting as dismounted infantry in Afghanistan and began to condition themselves in the Appalachians.
Focus: What other exercise programs would you suggest for Afghanistan?