Monday, January 29, 2007

Interview with an Operator

The fitness needs of Special Operations personnel are extensive. For these folks, optimum physical fitness can mean the difference between life and death. Many have latched onto Crossfit as a means of attaining and maintaining this level of fitness.

I recently got the opportunity to sit down with a good friend and an eight-year veteran of Crossfit who serves our country in this capacity. He shared his take on fitness in the field, covert operations, and the rigors of Crossfit.

AF: You serve in the U.S. Navy as a Corpsman, and you’re also a Crossfitter. What kind of job do you do?

Op: I am a U.S. Navy Corpsman, a medic basically. I work with Marines. This last deployment I was with the MSPF element, which is the Maritime Special Purpose Force element that does VBSS, which is visit, board, search, and seizure of vessels in the ocean. We do hostage takedowns, and reconnaissance and surveillance of enemy personnel.

AF: How long have you been doing that?

Op: About the last year or so.

AF: Give me some background. What happens between the time when the mission comes down and you hit the ground?

Op: You get a warning order. You have this five-paragraph order. It basically states the commander’s intent, what he wants of you, your unit to accomplish on this mission. Approximate dates, times, probably get a photo of a high-value target you need to capture. You get routes. If you’re walking on foot, sometimes you get dropped off 5, 6, 7 kilometers away in the middle of a jungle, you need to walk to the area. You get walking routes, topographical maps, satellite imagery—you get all kinds of stuff as far as mission planning is concerned.

Then everybody gets together, all the key personnel in the unit get together, the platoon commanders, you got your element commander, the element executive officer, squad leaders, team leaders, and the Corpsmen also sit in. They need to know, if something goes wrong medically, where they need to rendezvous with you, how long is evac time, so you can pack your gear accordingly. You’re not going to walk out there with a hospital on your back.

AF: How much gear are you usually packing?

Op: I usually pack between 20 and 30 pounds of gear. Most of it’s water weight, because it’s IV bags, intubation kits.

AF: So hopefully you’re coming back as heavy as you went in?

Op: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I spread load the stuff, too. I spin up most of my guys with how to administer IV solution, all that stuff, hypervolemic shock and all that stuff, so they know how to recognize it. At least, I think they do, I hope they do. When they recognize it, hey I’ve got this IV bag, let’s stick it and bring them to the Doc.

As far as basis, if you put it together, all the medical gear that’s out there, it’s probably seventy or eighty pounds, but I spread load it. One Marine will have some of the stuff, another Marine will…I spread load it within the Squads. You have three Squads in a platoon. If we’re rolling heavy, you’ve got 37 guys out there, you have seventy or eighty pounds of total gear, but they’ll be carrying 1 or 2 IV bags.

AF: So you’ve got this spread loaded, you’re on the helo, you have your mission, you know where you’re going. You’re five minutes to target. Tell me what’s going on physically, what’s going on in your head.

Op: Your mind is running like crazy. This is my first deployment, so you’re running though all the scenarios, what could happen, what couldn’t, is everybody going to be all right? Are you going to bring everybody home safely? Not you, in general, but is your commander going to bring you home safely? You’re just amped up. You’re ready to roll.

Everybody’s quiet. You can’t spit. You’re nervous as all shit. No matter how much water you drink, you still feel dehydrated. That’s just half of it right there. You’re shaking, you’re shaking a little bit.

AF: Okay. You’re over your drop zone. What goes on?

Op: After that, it goes into you do what you’re trained for. You execute. Once your feet are on the ground, you don’t have time to worry about what’s going to happen.

AF: Are you guys always fast roping out? Are you hover landing?

Op: Most of the time we’re fast roping. If you can find a clear LZ far enough away form the objective point, we’ll land, if it’s clear. Helos don’t land if there’s certain criteria. The helos will take off and we’ll start our op.

AF: Most Crossfitters have never fast roped. What exactly is getting out of that helicopter like?

Op: There are two ways to get out of the helicopter. There’s this thing called a “hellhole”, about the size of this table, a little bigger than this table. 3.5 foot by 3 foot hole you swing out of, you fast rope down. That’s the center of the bird, right in the belly of the bird. Then they have a tower that hangs off the back of the helo. You can swing out of that, too. That’s a lot easier to get out of, because there’s no restrictions. Your backside’s away from the bird, you’re looking at the bird as you’re going down. That’s a fun time. Fast roping’s good stuff. It’s a good way to put a lot of guys on the ground without touching down.

AF: Have you ever been in a combat situation where you had to throw somebody on your shoulder?

Op: Yes. We were in -------, and we were operating with Reconnaissance [Marines]. Those guys went through the house, and I was on the outside of the house. One of their guys went down. Their Corpsman inside the house, the Recon Corpsman, their own Corpsman, treated him, but being a Recon Corpsman, they have to push through, they have to operate more, so they called me up.

I had to do my secondary assessment, and I put him over my shoulder and carry him out. The LZ was 1.5 clicks away, so I carried him about 1.5 clicks.

AF: How far is 1.5 clicks?

Op: About a kilometer, 1500 meters.

AF: How much would you say this guy weighed?

Op: About 270, 260 pounds with all his gear.

AF: You carried a 270-pound man a kilometer. What are the ramifications of you not being able to do that?

Op: Basically, when that Corpsman did the turnover to me, here’s your patient, this is your patient; you’ve got to take care of him. If I can’t carry him, I can’t take care of him. The reason we’re there is to take care of the guys who are in need of medical attention. So if I have to dump him with some Marine who doesn’t know any medical, doesn’t have any advanced trauma and life support training, who can’t do any monitoring, even on his shoulder—he wasn’t wounded that bad, but bad enough to where he couldn’t walk—you always want to be able to monitor the patient. Me being able to carry the guy made it that much easier for me to monitor him.

Also, I’m doing my job, I’m sharing my load. I’m not dumping my load on someone else. So it makes the team that much more efficient.

AF: As far as the psychological necessity of being in the field, I’m sure you need to be focused and on-target and unemotional. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What is it like out there for you psychologically?

Op: You have to be ready and focused all the time, especially in that situation. Stuff goes downhill very quickly. For it not to go downhill on you, you need to be focused. That Crossfit stuff comes into play big-time. That physical duress you go through, even if it’s twenty minutes, it builds the mental toughness, the focus. You don’t have to worry about huffing and puffing up a hill.

AF: You obviously have to undergo some job-specific training, not only medical, but you need to be proficient with your gear. What kind of physical training do you undergo in the U.S. Navy, and how do you blend that training with Crossfit?

Op: The Navy sends me to medical schools, all the medical training we can get. A Corpsman on the “green side”, with the Marines, we start with Corps School, we go to FMSS, which is Field Medical Service School, and from there, they go to their unit. Their unit, after that, can either send them to EMT school or OEMS, a live tissue school. It’s a two-and-a-half week long school where they teach you all the ATLS stuff. They take the biggest points out of 18-Delta, which is the special operations medic school that all the special operations medic guys go through. We do a pig lab after that, a live tissue lab. You get to see firsthand what bullet wounds do to flesh, what cuts do to flesh. Sutures and stuff like that. Funny thing is, when you go to that course, you’ll be about 150, 200 yards away from the pig, and they’ll shoot it, and they’ll call for a Corpsman Up, Medic Up, and you have to go running to it. Assess it while you’re huffing and puffing, put it on a stretcher, and bring it back to your table. It’s an all or nothing type thing.

Crossfit teaches you to be like that. One second you’ll be standing there, and the next second, you’re going as fast and hard as you can.

AF: Are you just picking it up?

Op: You’re running to your patient or your pig—it doesn’t matter—and as you’re running there, all these scenarios are going through your head. That’s where physical fitness is huge. Is huge. If you’re not fit, one, you can’t get there quick enough, and number two, being fit allows you to think on the move. Thinking on the move is the big thing.

Just like if you were doing a “Diane”. If you know you can’t lift a 225 twenty-one times, if you’re thinking on the move, if I just divvy this up seven times, rest a little bit, seven times, rest a little bit. If you can’t do the handstand pushups 21 times in a row, it’s the same way. You build that focus.

AF: You started Crossfitting before you were serving in a covert capacity. What were the fitness requirements you had to meet to get into your Spec Ops Program?

Op: Basically, there isn’t a [stated] requirement. Physical fitness is paramount in that community. If one guy can’t keep his weight or pull his weight, the next guy has to pull his weight, and there’s a trickledown effect. If you’re operating with only twelve or fifteen guys in a house, it’s very hard to be efficient.

That’s where physical fitness comes into play, where Crossfit comes along. You should be able to carry a 250-pound guy a substantial distance if you need to. You also need to be able to deadlift a 250 pound guy, because if he’s on a litter, and you’re sharing it with another guy, you should be able to lift at least 150 pounds, maybe 200 pounds—him, all his gear, and maybe sometimes you need to put your gear on him as well.

AF: We were talking earlier about first responding, about policemen and firefighters, about the need to be out in the field and have your physical capacity about you to be able to do your job. Obviously, that’s very important. How do you fit in working out and being recovered enough to do your job, and is it an issue for you in your job?

Op: Policemen don’t carry sixty pounds of gear. First responders, same thing. EMTs, paramedics, those guys. Firefighters do, they have to wear all their protective gear. But those guys are immediate action. They get a call, they have to go right away.

In the military, it’s not like that. It’s more you get a mission base, you get your mission planning, and then your execution. That timeframe is usually 48-72 hours. So let’s say I do a Crossfit workout, a real hard one, like we did today, where you know you’re going to be sore tomorrow. You’re still good. Before your feet hit the deck, you’re going to be fully recovered. Let’s say you get the word tonight—you know you’re not going to hit the deck for at least another 48 hours. That’s the very minimum. Usually they push it further.

AF: How do you do WODs on deployment? You’re out for months at a time; you obviously can’t pack an entire gym with you. You guys are operating in pretty austere environments. What do you have?

Op: One of our guys in our platoon bought a bunch of kettlebells, so we bring those with us. We spread load those as well. If we’re making a campsite for the night, if we’re working in clandestine operations, we obviously don’t bring them, because we know we’ll be back within the day. But if we’re just out in the field we bring kettlebells with us. We also take from the old Crossfit Journal, where you can fill up sandbags and old ammo cans with sand. We guesstimate distances as far as running and stuff like that. I have a pair of rings I bring with me every time we go to the field. That’s how we Crossfit.

AF: How often do you get at it?

Op: Every time we go out. When I’m in garrison, I do it every day. When we’re in the field, it all depends whether or not we have time or not. Because in the morning—mornings are early—six o’clock, six thirty they get you up and you have to do your training. That training usually lasts until sundown. But if you’ve got enough time you do it, if not, you live to fight another day.

AF: Where do you get your workouts?

Op: When I go to the field, if I know I’m going to the field for five days, I write down five days worth of workouts, just random ones, ones I know I like. Ones that I know the guys I workout with like.

AF: Do you guys do exclusively Crossfit-style workouts? Is there anything else in there? Are you lifting?

Op: We’re running a lot and swimming a lot. So what we usually do in garrison, back in the rear, we’ll Crossfit in the morning at six, and at the end of the workday, we run or swim. That keeps us in pretty good shape. Actually, keeps us in really good shape.

AF: Is there total buy-in in your unit? Is everybody Crossfitting? Are there some guys that look at you like you’re nuts?

Op: There’s a lot of guys that look at us like we’re nuts. I’ve got to say, 85% of the guys look at us like we’re nuts. But the results speak for themselves. When I’m the first one done with a combat o-course, or I’m the first one done with a run, or the first one done with a swim, or the first one done with a run-swim-run, it’s all “who’s this guy?” Who’s this Navy guy? They talk shit about the Corpsmen, because you’re not a Marine. But I didn’t join the Marines Corps. It’s good to kick some ass every once in a while, put them in their place.

AF: How many guys are we talking about?

Op: The platoon is 35 deep, and about ten guys are Crossfitting. I know there’s five of us doing it on a consistent basis. You know ------‘s one of the guys in my platoon, and there’s two other guys that do it on a consistent basis. Four or five of us on a consistent basis. The other guys, they kind of do it, sometimes maybe not, depending on their mood.

AF: You guys ever try to spread the Gospel, so to speak, or is it hands-off?

Op: I tried. I tried when I first checked into the unit, and it didn’t work.

AF: What are these other 30 guys doing for fitness?

Op: The old school Marine Corps shit. They’re doing a lot of running. I told them, “A lot of running’s not going to make you combat effective.” They do a lot of the isolated muscle thing, the muscle-head, biceps curl shit.

AF: Is there a difference in results from the guys doing Crossfit? You’ve got a third of the guys doing Crossfit. Do you see a difference in run times?

Op: Hell yeah. -----, when he first started Crossfitting, his PFT… In the Military, everything is a PFT. What was your last PFT score? Which is not an accurate measure of fitness.

AF: For those that don’t know, what is the PFT?

Op: The PFT for the Marine Corps is sit-ups in two minutes—a hundred is a perfect score—pull-ups, no time limit, twenty is a perfect score, and a three-mile run. Eighteen minutes is a perfect score.

AF: Let’s talk about range of motion. Are these full sit-ups?

Op: No. Not at all. It’s arms crossed, touch your thighs. The pull-ups are dead hang. You can’t kip, but you can get a rhythm. If it doesn’t look like you’re kipping, they’ll count them.

AF: What’s your PFT score?

Op: My last PFT score was 295 out of 300.

AF: Where did you fall short?

Op: I was a little slow on the run.

AF: So you couldn’t string together three consecutive 6:00 miles? That’s okay, man, not too many people can. (Laughter).

Op: It’s ridiculous.

AF: These guys that you’ve got out there running every day?

Op: Even the guys that are out there running every day aren’t scoring 300 PFTs. A lot of them are falling short on the calisthenics, especially the pull-ups. A lot of guys can’t do twenty pull-ups. It’s kind of embarrassing for them when the Corpsman comes along and does twenty pull-ups like it was nothing.

Going back to ------, when he first started Crossfitting, his PFT was like a 255, 265, something like that. It’s middle first-class. High first-class would be a 285, 290, 295. He started Crossfit, and two months later, he had a PFT, and he went from a 265 to a 285, 290. In just two months. And he still maintains it today. And he’s gotten heavier as far as muscle mass. He’s got even more muscle.

AF: What other situations do you find yourself in where your fitness needs to be exhibited, not in a combat situation, but in o-courses, etcetera?

Op: O-course too. The Marine Corps o-course. It’s a short course, about 200 meters long. Not even two hundred meters. It’s a hundred and fifty meters long. You got a bar you have to vault, you got monkey bars, you have a thing called the “Dirty Name “ where you jump off a log and catch it on your stomach, and then low walls, you got low log vaults, and a rope climb at the end. My time, it’s hard for me to gauge it, because I didn’t start Crossfit in the military—I started on the outside. Which is good, but for a bigger guy, I’m not small, I can keep up with the best of them. I attribute it to Crossfit.

AF: How long does it take you to get through that hundred and fifty meters?

Op: Last time, it was like 3:40 over twelve, thirteen obstacles. You get to the rope, you’re smoked. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a short, quick workout. Sometimes you run it two, three times for PT. I like it. It’s very Crossfit-like. It’s functional, throw-your-body-somewhere stuff.

AF: We know Crossfit is superior to a bodybuilding/cardio split. I don’t think that’s worth rehashing too much. Does it actually make a difference in the field? Are your bodybuilding/cardio guys keeping up with you anyway? Is it really not a problem?

Op: They can keep up, but they get gassed a lot easier. They definitely can’t carry a two hundred and sixty pound guy for one and a half kilometers. But they can keep up. They wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t. They were hand-selected by our battalion to go to this unit. They can, but I think they could do better. That’s just my opinion, from what I’ve seen.

AF: All right. Thanks. I really appreciate you sending me this stuff and taking the time to talk with me. I’m sure everyone out at Crossfit will appreciate it too. Thanks very much.

Op: No worries.

My thanks to the men of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps, and my friend, the outstanding Crossfitter who made this possible. Thank you for your service. All pictures courtesy of an anonymous serviceman known simply as "Combat Camera".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just nosy-which coast was the HM from (stationed on, that is)? Is he an 8427? I was wondering if I knew him...nice article.

1/29/2007 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Gilson said...

West Coast, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article. We had a great time doing the interview and spending a couple of days Crossfitting our butts off. Thanks for coming by and checking out AF.



1/30/2007 12:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jon -

This posting is fantastic!Thanks for sharint it, and thanks especially to the OP who sat for your interview!


1/30/2007 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew Cricchio said...

Again Faster is easily becoming one of the most interesting blogs in the CrossFit community.

Good stuff.

-Matt at CrossFit Lombardy

1/30/2007 06:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corpsmen are badass!

1/30/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview. Really enjoyed it.

2/12/2007 06:30:00 PM  

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