In order to ensure the health and readiness of our special operations forces, the U.S. military is following the lead of the sports world with specialized training and rehab for its "tactical athletes"
As former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and other NFL draft hopefuls strain under stacks of weights, a yellow Lab named Rigby wanders through the Exos gym in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Canine intrusion on the training of future millionaire football players would be strictly forbidden but for two reasons. First, Rigby knows when to hang back and when to go in for a neck scratch. Second, Rigby's workout partner is the baddest ass in the room.
The man lifts weights that are lighter than those of the NFL hopefuls, but Marcus Luttrell isn't trying to bulk up. The former Navy SEAL is here on a rehab assignment. On June 28, 2005, Luttrell sustained the following injuries: a gunshot wound, a broken back, two blown-out knees, a torn rotator cuff, a crushed hand, facial fractures, and shrapnel damage to his legs. Luttrell recounted these injuries in his memoir, Lone Survivor, which describes the costliest day in the history of the U.S. military's elite special operations forces. Three SEALs died in Afghanistan after Luttrell and his team were attacked by Taliban fighters. Eight SEALs and eight soldiers from the Army's Night Stalkers team died during a subsequent rescue mission when their helicopter was shot down. Only Luttrell made it back. Since 2010 he has come to Exos, a chain of performance centers for elite athletes, to help heal his body and—much to his surprise—his mind. "They kept pushing me in front of all these doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists," Luttrell says. "All of it was a direct correlation to what happened to me physically. I came here. I got better physically, and obviously I got better mentally."
As the athletes and Luttrell and other soldiers finish their workouts, two more groups begin stretching. In one corner is NFL hopeful Aaron Murray, the former Georgia quarterback, who will soon start running on his surgically repaired ACL. In another corner is Army Staff Sgt. George Perez, who rehabs a far more complicated leg injury. As a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, Perez lost the lower half of his left leg after the Humvee in which he was riding hit an IED in Fallujah, Iraq, on Sept. 14, 2003. The then 19-year-old Perez flew in one direction. His boot flew in another. Perez looked down and saw his left foot folded over his left knee.
Surgeons saved Perez's leg, but a postoperative infection forced them to amputate below the knee. Within a few months Perez had taught himself to walk again, and 13 months after the injury he reenlisted. For the last 10 years Perez has served his country in pain. He currently jumps out of perfectly good airplanes for the Army's Golden Knights parachute team, but atrophy in the upper muscles of his left leg forced his right side to overcompensate, causing chronic back pain. Percocet and Fentanyl dulled the ache, but they stopped being effective after a few years. So in late 2013 he came to Exos so he could rehab less like a hospital patient than like an athlete. For a while he lifted nothing heavier than an eight-kilogram kettlebell. After a few weeks the pain in his back dissipated. His body could do things it hadn't been able to do since the injury. He did lunges with most of his body weight on his prosthesis. He ran a mile on the leg with minimal postworkout pain. "It feels amazing," he says.
Luttrell's and Perez's training is sponsored by the Eagle Fund—a charity started in 2010 by Exos—and the orthopedic institute run by surgeon James Andrews. The fund allows injured soldiers to use the same rehab and training techniques used by elite athletes to either get back in shape or, if their injuries were career-ending, transition back into civilian life. While the fund and others like it have financed the rehab of dozens of lucky soldiers, the leaders of the U.S. Special Operations Command have worked for the past few years to design a program that can offer similar services to all 18,525 of the special operations forces in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The structure should look familiar to anyone who follows professional or major college sports.
The Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) Task Force was formed in 2010 to identify the challenges created by almost 10 continuous years of combat. As part of the group's research into how to better serve special ops forces at home and abroad, military leaders picked the brains of strength coaches and athletic trainers. They discovered that the top soldiers in the military—who are often asked to push their bodies even further than elite athletes—needed a support system similar to those of the New York Yankees or the Florida State football team.
The special ops forces needed strength coaches to standardize training regimens for specific units. Just as the workouts for an offensive lineman and a quarterback differ, so might the workouts for a group headed to Iraq and one headed to Afghanistan. The soldiers needed dieticians to teach them how to eat to match their specific duties. For example, a SEAL would require a diet different from that of an Army Ranger, whose training includes food deprivation. The soldiers needed athletic trainers to treat their injuries and teach injury-prevention techniques. They needed physical therapists to help reduce time lost to injury and to help prevent recurrences. "People talk about taking care of weapons," says Mike Sanders, the former University of Denver strength coordinator who now serves as the THOR3 human-performance coordinator for the Army's Seventh Special Forces Group. "What about human beings? How do we take care of the human being?"
Here's another question: Shouldn't the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets and other elite fighting forces, who put their lives on the line, have at least the same support staff as a midlevel FBS team?
For years they didn't. Former Auburn linebacker Alex Lincoln joined Exos in 2008 and now runs the Eagle Fund. As he talked to soldiers in the program, he was stunned by the insufficient health equipment and strength training they received as recently as five years ago. "Where was the military compared to a sports team?" Lincoln says. "[It had] less than a good high school program would have. No preventive maintenance. [Soldiers] had to do their human performance on their own. They were expected to be tough and just grind through injuries."
Now things are different, thanks to the POTFF and to research that began 10 years ago at the University of Pittsburgh's Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. Lab director Scott Lephart had read a study on the injuries typically suffered by special ops troops, and they looked nearly identical to the injuries his team had studied while working with the Steelers, the Penguins, the Pitt football team and the PGA Tour. "The types of injuries that were occurring to special ops forces—and to the entire armed forces—were the types of things that we had been studying in the sports-medicine world for 15 or 20 years," Lephart says. So in 2004 he approached the Department of Defense with an idea. "Why don't we partner and start doing some research to help you reduce these injuries?"
In 2005, Lephart opened a lab at Kentucky's Fort Campbell and began studying the Army's 101st Airborne Division. The program has since expanded to six labs at bases around the country and now works with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The gap between starting research and implementing recommendations based on the findings is between four and five years. Lephart's team has begun cranking out data and potential solutions, leading to an influx of specialists.
Exercise physiologist Chris Knerl serves as a human-performance adviser to the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Mary Esther, Fla., and he is frequently asked about job openings by former colleagues in the sports world. "Our coaches have been on the ground for a little over a year," Knerl says. "Every one of them has said this is a much more fulfilling job." It also can be a heartbreaking job. "There have been times that we've sent guys out the door, and they don't come home," Sanders says. "And it's awful."
While some military units had athletic trainers in the past, there was no standardized support team. Now every branch of the armed forces is hiring strength coaches, trainers, physical therapists and dieticians under the umbrella of the POTFF. "We took that professional or collegiate sports model, and we're molding it to the tactical setting," says Knerl. He now supervises a staff of 53. Five years ago? "There was me," he says.
That buildup has produced quick results. Trainer Don Kessler joined the SEALs support staff in 2011 after a career spent working with athletes at the Naval Academy, Princeton, Rutgers and San Diego State. He noticed that during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, neck and shoulder injuries forced potential SEALs to drop out. The program includes a combined 53 miles of running by small teams of sailors who must tote a 300-pound craft. Kessler determined that prospective SEALs could reduce their injury rate by doing certain neck- and shoulder-strengthening exercises before the assignment began. While the newest SEALs work out, Kessler teaches them how to continue their training once deployed. "You won't have weights where you are in Afghanistan or Iraq," Kessler says, "but here's what you can do with your backpack."
Captain Tom Chaby, the former SEAL Team 5 leader who now runs the POTFF program, joined the SEALs in 1989 after graduating from Delaware, where he was a lightly used walk-on running back. The young Chaby figured the SEALs' training center in Coronado, Calif., would be cutting-edge. A look at the weight room dispelled that notion. "I'm expecting to see a gym like I had at Delaware," he says. Instead he saw cobwebs, dripping pipes and rickety benches. Once he became an active SEAL, Chaby realized that while the Navy offered advanced tactical and weapons instruction, it offered little guidance in terms of physical training. Soldiers determined their own workouts. Chaby says, "Alfa platoon—they wanted to lift and be big. They lifted weights and used protein powder. They were huge. Bravo platoon—they thought endurance was much better, so they ran all the time. They were skinny. Charlie platoon—they didn't think either was important. All they did was drink and shoot—but not in that order."
Such "ad-hoc-ery," as Chaby calls it, exacerbated injuries because the SEALs hadn't trained their bodies for the unique aspects of certain missions. For example, a SEAL who bulked up before deploying to Afghanistan would be at a disadvantage, because lighter soldiers could more easily negotiate the mountainous terrain. Meanwhile the lack of role-specific rehab increased time lost to injury. In 24 years as an active operator, Chaby had six knee surgeries and two hip surgeries. He estimates he was sidelined by injuries for between a fifth and a quarter of his career. For a SEAL, whose specific skills and experience are more valuable on a mission than any rifle or missile, that's unacceptable.
In his files Chaby keeps a graph that shows the "sweet spot" for a special ops soldier: the years during which he has enough advanced training to be effective in the field and his body remains capable of doing the job. Chaby believes the POTFF program will lengthen that sweet spot. He also hopes the more advanced training and rehab will cut long-term health-care costs for former soldiers and give injured retirees a better quality of life.
In 2014, USSOCOM requested $46 million for the human-performance prong of the POTFF program. In the U.S. budget approved by Congress, the program received $26 million. That breaks down to $1,404 per year for each active operator. According to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Education, Notre Dame spent $32.4 million to run its football team in the 2012--13 school year. For less than that, thousands of special ops soldiers can have trainers, strength coaches and physical therapists on staff. If the POTFF program can reduce injuries and lengthen careers, Chaby argues, the country should save money over the long run. "It's about three things: readiness, readiness, readiness," he says. "Nothing else."
Luttrell has kept tabs on the POTFF program, and his experience at Exos has convinced him that with more advanced training and treatment, "I'd still be active duty." Meanwhile the physical therapy and rehab components of the program could help a generation of banged-up soldiers. "If they don't get home in one piece," Sanders says, "our job is to help them get back to where they were, so they can have a semblance of a decent life. Or get them back out the door so they can do their job again."
Perez, the amputee paratrooper, would like to see a similar program for every soldier who could face combat. "That would be an amazing asset to the military," he says. "The way we do [physical training] is so old-style. If you do ruck marches, they don't teach you to position your body to walk long distances with heavy weight on your back. They don't teach you the stretching that you have to do. If they used this stuff in the big Army, we'd have fewer soldiers in the aid station and more out there getting the training the country is paying for."
Lincoln, the former Auburn linebacker who runs the Eagle Fund, believes the marriage of sports training and the military was long overdue. "I played a game, and I had all these tools and resources to help me play the game to the best of my ability," he says. "I look at these servicemen and -women, and they don't play a game. It's life and death. They need those same resources."
A 12-week clinical trial, comparing POTFF soldiers to those working out on their own
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Pull-ups (25-lb. vest)
Sample Movement-Based Training for an Injured Soldier
• Form techniques
• Posture wall drill
• Sled drills
• Bungee-resisted marching
• Light resisted running and jogging
• One-armed dumbbell bench (upper-body push)
• One-armed dumbbell bent-over row (upper-body pull)
• Two-arm kettlebell squat (lower-body push)
• Barbell Romanian dead lift (lower-body pull)
• Upper-and lower-body lifting progressions
• Explosive medicine-ball work focused on challenging balance and hip speed
• Perpendicular and parallel throws