Boot camps whip civilians into shape
All around America, seemingly sane people are paying — and sometimes paying big — for the agonies of boot camp.
Jumping jacks. Push-ups. Having some guy scream expletives in your face, veins pulsing like bad plumbing. Relishing the tender nickname “Maggot.”
It’s the stuff of memory for people in the military, and at least they were paid for it. But fitness boot camps, ranging from the remedial to the really mental, are a faddish rebellion against aerobics and spandex.
One outfit in Washington, D.C., run by a former Navy fitness instructor, “The Sarge,” charges an introductory fee of $345, then $80 per month to humiliate pudgy office types.
“Be All You Used to Be,” goes his slogan.
Another operation, Team Delta in Quincy, Mass., offers boot camp as well as a “POW Interrogation and Resistance Training Program.”
Richard Simmons it’s not.
“They’re trying to get rid of the choreography and get back to the basics,” says Susanne Dale, fitness coordinator for the 221st Base Support Battalion at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany. Dale commands her own overseas version, with a twist: Most of its recruits are Army wives. It’s their way to get fit and catch a glimpse of how their other halves live.
In September, 35 people signed up for eight weeks at a relatively modest $50. It’s the biggest squad Wiesbaden has seen in two years of offering the camp. They muster twice a week.
“Most of the people that come to this class are overweight, nonexercisers,” Dale says. She calls the plan “kick yourself back into fitness again.”
Her program is considerably less psycho than some in the States. It’s mostly calisthenics and running, with some shouting thrown in to get the blood going.
Even so, recruits are given a fitness screening. Some wind up being asked to seek a doctor’s clearance.
Initial turnout isn’t a problem. Keeping the folks coming back is. In the past, the program has had around 25 people begin each camp. Seven finished this year’s first camp; a dozen finished the summer session.
“We’re hoping for about 50 percent this time,” Dale says. “We’d love for everyone to finish, but unfortunately, exercise isn’t always fun. But we’re trying to make it fun, or at least motivating.”
Some, though, keep enlisting. Like Jennifer Smith, a 28-year-old Army wife who finished the summer session and is now tackling the autumn.
“It was so much fun. It really was,” Smith says. She is actually smiling. “I was the slowest one, and I didn’t think I could make it through it — but I did.”
She joined to meet people as well as shape up. And it wasn’t nearly “Full Metal Jacket.”
“It was good enough I saw results, but not so hard I couldn’t do it,” she says.
The summer sessions were still rough — mustering on pavement gone wavy at more than 100 degrees, the air wringing with humidity. Some recruits threw up.
Pia Morales, one of the more athletic of the current recruits, signed up in summer, too. Her sergeant first class husband told her: “You’re better than me. I wouldn’t be out there in that heat.”
Attendance is mandatory, says Lisa Michaelis, a support specialist at the fitness center. “If not, they’re kicked out.”
Only a doctor’s note can save the AWOL.
It all begins on a breezy September evening. A handful of return customers from the summer arrive even before the drill instructors. They learned the hard way.
Both the “sergeants” are actually personal trainers.
“I don’t think they know what to expect,” instructor Lori Stewart says, surveying the arrival of fidgety newbies.
Margie Anderson, the more, er, vocal instructor, says she is trying to figure out how much work her new charges require. Recruits usually fragment into their own groups depending on fitness level. Some move into leadership roles, just like in real boot camp.
“They look forward to the torture,” Stewart adds. Then she reconsiders.
“We’re both personal trainers, so we don’t want to force them to do something they don’t want to do.”
An Army captain passing by the gym mumbles, “I’ve heard that before.”
Indeed, wrath awaits.
The instructors command that their dawdling recruits line up. Two stumble in late. Five more follow.
“We’re not on your time here, we’re on my time,” Anderson growls. “We’ve had eight people late here. If people are late, then the class suffers. I know this is new to you, and you’re still learning that. You paid for it. Be here on time.”
They start with jumping jacks. Somebody shouts, “Hooah!”
Then they’re off the pavement, bounding into the grass beside a vista of parked tanks.
Then Gene Hickman, a 55-year-old Army employee and one of just two men in the group, jogs up.
“No excuses,” he says. “I’m late.”
No problem, the drill instructors reply. Welcome to push-ups. The entire squad must drop. Each latecomer leads the set in her or his honor. The rest chant their appreciation for the extra work.
“Thank you Hickman one, thank you Hickman two. …”
“If you don’t sound off, we do them again,” Anderson warns.
“No,” offers a voice from the crowd, “let’s not.”
Hickman offers an alternative. “How about flogging?”
All told, they do about 40 push-ups, a lot for a first day. And they weren’t even part of the plan. Most recruits fall from their toes and onto their knees as the sets continue.
Soon comes the 15-minute run.
Stewart watches from beside one of the tanks. She quietly admits she isn’t much of a harrier herself. A couple of the women spring lightly at the front of the group.
Most huff and blow. Some walk. Some talk.
Anderson glances at Stewart. “They’d better shape up.”
“We might have to get rough with ’em,” Stewart replies, “’cause they’re getting really chatty.”
The trick is to push them to The Edge. This place has more in common with the pro wrestler than with the guy who plays guitar for U2. The Edge is where the sergeants shout just enough so that recruits snap to it, but not so much that they just plain snap.
“I mean,” Stewart says, “you have to see these people in the commissary.”
It wasn’t always so.
“The last year, the people were a little more barky,” supervisor Dale admits. “We backed off a little bit. We actually had some people in tears.”
Most of Wiesbaden’s soldiers are away in the Middle East. As in other times of mass deployment, the base gym is busy. It’s something Dale relates to herself, having endured her husband’s yearlong mission to Afghanistan alone with her two children.
“So many women are in the gym trying to look better for their husbands when they get back,” she says. Those who enlist for her boot camp simply need extra pressure and some esprit de corps to get them going.
“You can go to the gym any day,” Stewart says, “but there’s no motivation.”
Enter the civvie sergeants.
Their 15-minute run over, the squad tastes a few drops of water. Someone’s daughter is rolling around in the grass, enjoying this more than her mom. A couple of limber runners grin.
Everyone else is purple. Returnee Smith jogs up, flushed but smiling.
But they’re back in their line again, doing more calisthenics. They do crunches and contortions. Faces contort, too.
They dream of rest. Or maybe even a sandwich.
While a few recruits follow along easy, many have faces that look like tomatoes. Speaking of tomatoes, they are better than anything a la crème.
“You can go home and erase it all with a pound of cheesecake,” Anderson warns.
Hickman, half the male population of the squad, said the lack of testosterone in the field was a surprise, but not an issue. As for the drills, they were painfully familiar. He’s a retired first sergeant. A real Sarge.
“It’s the exact same exercises as we did in basic training, it’s just not as much — there’s not as much yelling.”
Smith’s smile remains in pearly place even at the end. She’s recruited friend Karen Millay, who says the session was rough. But she, as a certain gubernatorial candidate once pledged, will be back.
“I’m gonna try,” Millay says. “My husband’s rooting for me back in Iraq.”