Col. Peter M. Champagne, 8th Military Police Brigade commander, holds a “Big Dog” T-shirt, one of the rewards for placing in the Iron Watchdog challenge.

Col. Peter M. Champagne, 8th Military Police Brigade commander, holds a “Big Dog” T-shirt, one of the rewards for placing in the Iron Watchdog challenge. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Spc. Oh Jin-soo didn’t know how to swim when he started practicing for an aggressive fitness challenge posed by the 8th Military Police Brigade commander.

The Korean-American U.S. soldier said he didn’t even know how to float. Then he tried to swim too fast and sucked down water.

But Oh finished the Iron Watchdog challenge, an exhausting test of strength and stamina, ranking in the silver category.

He had some good inspiration for performing well: His boss, Col. Peter M. Champagne, created the challenge and trained with him.

The series of seven physical tests — plus a marksmanship evaluation — pushes soldiers beyond the Army’s regular physical training, Champagne said.

“The No. 1 priority is physical fitness,” Champagne said. “It kind of promotes total fitness.”

Military police soldiers’ work can be rough: Sometimes they must detain someone larger, stronger and drunk, Champagne said. The Army’s physical fitness test is a good basic yardstick, but it doesn’t mean a soldier is completely fit, Champagne said.

The Iron Watchdog, which Champagne introduced to his soldiers last fall, is largely about pride. No one says the competition is easy.

But the challenge gives soldiers a sense of “cohesiveness,” a high point to aim for that is respected by others, Champagne said. It is also an alternative to the “unhealthy activities” around South Korea, he said.

A few months ago, Champagne went to Collier Field House to work out and ran into two soldiers in his 1,800-soldier brigade.

He didn’t recognize their faces, but they knew him. They took the Iron Watchdog challenge and “couldn’t wait to tell me how proud they were,” Champagne said.

“They were just lit up,” Champagne said. “They were just beaming with pride.”

Soldiers who achieve gold status get a four-day leave pass, a commander’s coin, a Watchdog T-shirt, cap, pen set and watch — and their name on the “Big Dog” plaque in the brigade headquarters. The Big Dog — a cartoon MP bulldog bulging with muscles — is the program’s mascot.

Soldiers can finish the program at their own pace, but all tests must be completed in 30 days. They must do a 6-mile foot march, a PT test, 3-mile run, pull-ups or a flexed-arm hang, bench press, 1,200-foot swim and a weapons qualification.

Soldiers can place in gold, silver and bronze categories according to how they perform.

For Capt. Heather Stone, the swimming event was the easy part; the flexed-arm hang was more difficult. Instead of pull-ups, a woman can do the flexed-arm hang, a test of upper-body strength requiring her to hold her head over a bar.

“It’s a leadership challenge,” Stone said. “It’s a personal challenge. It gives you a different goal.”

But Champagne’s program hasn’t been well received by all soldiers. He said some sergeants and staff sergeants scoff at it, maybe because they can’t complete the challenge themselves.

Staff Sgt. Wilhem Ortiz is in training now. And he’s even tackling weights, an exercise he has never been fond of.

Spc. Donald Ellson is working on pull-ups in preparation for the test. The pull-ups must be done with palms facing out from a dead hang each time. The goal: 16 repetitions for gold.

“Gold is definitely attainable,” Ellson said. “I won’t take it unless I get the gold.”

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