New GI workouts mimic stress of battlefield

Halfway through an hour of workout “agony,” Army I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell let loose a shout to lift the spirits of the soldiers around him.

“I’m in my happy place! Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Miller Lite and Andy Griffith!”

None of those treats was within reach for the sweat-drenched, red-faced Troxell. He held himself about a yard above the ground with his limbs wrapped around a tree trunk at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, exhausting his already tired muscles.

He was responsible for his own pain. Troxell, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer at the local base, was the designer of the gauntlet he tackled Friday with a batch of young lieutenants. The purpose: to teach them workouts that would stress their bodies in ways that resemble combat.

At 47, Troxell wants to help younger soldiers prevent battlefield and training injuries by getting them used to the short bursts of intense exercise that characterize a deployment.

The Army in recent years has shifted away from traditional 5-mile runs and countless pushups in favor of sprints and exercises that build up core muscles.

“I have yet to run five miles on the battlefield,” Troxell said.

He developed his workout philosophy in 2007 when he fought in Iraq as the senior noncommissioned officer in Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. It was a so-called “surge” brigade stationed in Diyala Province for a tough, 15-month tour.

His soldiers were fit and well-trained, yet Troxell quickly realized their predeployment workouts didn’t match the rigors they were facing in Iraq.

“I saw soldiers breaking down from the tear of wearing 60, 80 pounds of kit and going on eight- to 12-kilometer patrols,” he said.

Instead of pounding weights in an air-conditioned gym or running laps around a track, Troxell started looking for exercise tools that would mimic the battlefield. He’d experiment by hurling heavy tires, whipping chains or lifting sacks with ropes tied to his limbs.

He found the new exercises built more than aerobic endurance; they’d test a soldier’s willpower by keeping him straining against a variety of tasks.

“I wanted my soldiers to be hard, and not only physically hard, but mentally and emotionally hard,” he said.

Troxell wants Lewis-McChord soldiers to do the high-intensity workouts as often as they can in their daily physical training.

“Every morning between 6:30 and 7:30 ought to be the most intense hour of the day. Over time, this should build up physical resilience. We all know in the Army that the more physically fit you are, the more stressors you can handle.

“It conditions the mind and spirit to say, ‘I’m out of my comfort zone, and that’s OK,’” he said.

The lieutenants who joined him Friday seemed to enjoy the challenge once they finished the workout. They’d spend 75 seconds at each of about 30 exercise stations with 30 seconds between each session.

At one station, they flipped a backhoe tire over their heads repeatedly. Soldiers tossed a thick chain at another station – giving the group the cadence of a prison gang on a work detail.

“Each one of these exercises is hard on its own. After two, you’re already tired. After that, it’s just do as much as you can,” said Lt. Josh Pugh, 24.

At the halfway mark, Lt. Ryan Grace of the 2nd Squadron, 1st Calvary Regiment said he was “smoked” as he got ready to run sprints with a parachute tied to his back.

When he finished, Grace, 25, said the workout gave him a feeling of accomplishment. He planned to bring some of the drills to his platoon, and he said the exercises reflected the stress on his body during his recent deployment to Iraq with the 4th Brigade.

“I feel pretty good,” he said, “just mentally knowing I was able to complete (the workout) was pretty rewarding.”

Troxell has been exercising for four years using the techniques he demonstrated Friday. He gave up long runs when he made the decision to pursue a different kind of training.

In spite of that, he shaved 75 seconds off a timed 2-mile run he took on his Army physical fitness test.

“I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646