FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Readiness for the National Guard’s state and federal mission begins with the readiness of individual Guardsmen, and Soldiers and Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard worked hard to build physical, mental, and spiritual readiness at the Comprehensive Soldier and Airmen Fitness Course at Fort McCoy Aug. 5-19.
Approximately three years ago, Sgt. Brandon Berg, who at the time held the rank of specialist in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, and is currently a fire control specialist with A Co, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, was habitually failing every Army Physical Fitness Test he took since he had arrived at his unit. Berg’s unit, however didn’t give up on him.
Berg’s leadership encouraged him to attend the Comprehensive Soldier and Airmen Fitness Course, and he agreed.
When he arrived, he brought with him the perception that the two week course would be a lot like a “fat camp”, meant to kick Soldiers and Airmen into gear with their physical fitness. His perception changed almost immediately upon starting the course.
“I learned different things, mostly my running form was pretty bad, and that I had a really strong mental block,” Berg said.
He added that the classes throughout the course taught him how to better care for himself not only physically, but also spiritually, mentally and socially, among other aspects that can affect a person’s well-being.
At the beginning of the course, Berg ran two miles in 21 minutes. After two weeks of classes and training, he cut his two-mile run time to 14 minutes flat.
“That was from me applying what I have learned from the Comprehensive Soldier [and Airman] Fitness Course,” Berg said. “I have been slowly applying that to my life.”
He said the returns have come back tenfold. Berg was promoted to the rank of sergeant, and deployed to the Middle East with his unit in July 2018.
“That was definitely one of my big goals throughout,” Berg said. “I wanted to deploy, and then I wanted to keep up [with my fitness], and then I knew for a fact that I wanted to become cadre.”
Berg accomplished his goals, and came back as an instructor to the course in the beginning of August. Now he is helping Soldiers and Airmen who are in the same position he was just a few short years ago.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Aaron Hunnel, the course manager, said there have been quite a few junior enlisted students who go on to become noncommissioned officers and lead troops during a deployment. He said, however, the transformation during the course is what stands out to him.
“The biggest success stories typically occur here at the course where people learn to challenge and conquer fear,” Hunnel said. “We’ve helped people with extreme fear of water and heights successfully confront those fears and overcome them. The fear doesn’t necessarily go away for them, they just learn to be stronger.”
The Comprehensive Soldier and Airman Fitness Course is designed to help Soldiers and Airmen identify and change lifestyle health behaviors. Students are taught about different aspects that can affect their health, and each course has experts and counselors in many different areas to help students make progress and improve different areas of health in their life. The course runs twice a year, once in the spring, and once in summer. More than 40 students attended the most recent iteration of the course which ran from August 5 - 19.
Spc. Taylor Fredrickson, a human resources specialist with the 32nd Infantry Brigade headquarters, attended the course as a way to help prepare her for the unit’s upcoming deployment to the Ukraine.
“I knew this course was going to be a really good kick in the butt, kind of like a reality check to get myself back in gear, and now I’m starting to remember how much I used to enjoy working out,” Fredrickson said.
She asked the instructors if they could recreate all of the workouts they’ve done throughout the course so she can bring them with her to do at home and while on deployment.
Pfc. Michael Taschner, a wheeled vehicle mechanic with D Company, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, said he learned there is so much more to being a healthy individual in general than just the physical aspect.
“There’s really no judgement at all in the course,” Taschner said. “It doesn’t matter how out of shape you are physically. It doesn’t matter what you’ve got going on in your life. Throughout the course with Chief [Hunnel] and the help of the cadre, you’re going to be able to figure things out.”
Staff Sgt. Christopher Kulke, a logistics planner with the 115th Logistics Readiness Squadron, was the only Airman to attend this iteration of the course. He said it was great working with Soldiers and getting a glimpse of the Army lifestyle. He added that the course has improved his running and his belief in himself.
Kulke said that students attending the course should be prepared to sweat, hydrate, be physical, and listen to the classes.
“A lot of people might understand what the classes have, as far as information-wise, but take it and use it,” Kulke said. “Take all the notes that you can, and push yourself during running and physical activity.”
The course has also been beneficial for the instructors. Spc. Jacob Theilman, a medic with Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, has provided medical support for the last four iterations of the course. Before he was brought to the course as cadre, he was struggling with meeting the Army’s standards for height and weight, and physical fitness. Working as course staff has helped him improve both his physical and mental state.
“It was a lot more than just the physical aspect, but a lot of mental aspect too, like different things that are holding you back or things in your life that you haven’t let go,” Theilman said.
Students who attend the course typically stay connected after the course through a Facebook group where they post their progress and accomplishments, Theilman said. He said he has made a lot of lifelong friends through the course.
“I always come back because honestly I’ve never seen something where people come out so positive, and so happy, and actually change their lives,” Theilman said.
The course has also been recognized as a great asset by Wisconsin National Guard senior leadership.
Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor, said the course is designed to benefit the National Guard’s most valuable asset – personnel. He added that the course is about improving not only physical fitness, but also each student’s quality of life. He hopes that each student will take what they learned with them after completing the course.
“Even if you never stay in the military, if you take some of these things – physical fitness, spiritual fitness, and nutrition – and you change your life, you’re going to be a better parent, father, husband, wife, significant other,” Conde said. “You’re just going to be a better person in the future.”
Berg said as an instructor, he hopes he is able to connect with students one-on-one to share what he learned, as well as the trials and tribulations he has gone through.
“That’s part of the reason I came back,” Berg said. “I wanted to make a difference in their lives as much as the course has in mine, and I want them to succeed.”