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Air Force Adds Sickle Cell Trait Question to Fitness Survey After PT Deaths

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Airmen will now see a new question on their Air Force fitness screening questionnaire, or FSQ, prior to taking the physical fitness assessment.

The addition of screening for sickle cell trait on the survey will help to flag those who might need additional clearance or care ahead of their PT test, officials said. The change was initiated in July and has now gone into effect for airmen across the service.

“Asking the one percent of the Air Force’s members who have the sickle cell trait if they have appropriately prepared for their physical assessment demonstrates the Air Force’s commitment to being adaptable and ensuring the health of airmen,” Lt. Col. Richard Speakman, 22nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander, said in a released statement.

Capt. Carrie Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Thursday via email that the service is also now requiring airmen to complete the FSQ at least seven days prior to taking the fitness assessment.

The FSQ is a mandatory survey that assesses age and medical history and asks an airman to describe how he or she is feeling prior to a PT test.

Sickle cell trait is a gene mutation in which people inherit a sickle cell gene from one parent. While those with sickle cell trait typically do not have symptoms associated with sickle cell disease, they may in rare cases be adversely affected by conditions including extreme exercise, dehydration and high altitudes.

Related: After PT Deaths, Air Force Weighs Separating Waist Measurement from Fitness Test

“These changes were made to ensure airmen who have medical conditions receive proper medical review/clearance prior to conducting their fitness assessment,” Volpe said.

Volpe said the service is also reviewing two additional policy updates to increase safety and “reduce anxiety associated with testing.”

“These will be released after coordination and review to ensure we get them right,” she said.

The service already administers sickle cell trait testing at Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Col. Jason Corrothers, 737th Training Group and BMT commander, earlier this year said it allows commanders to be “mindful of medical risks” that new recruits may have.

“We test 100% of trainees and we have been doing that for years,” Corrothers said in June.

“What we want to do is make sure that we’ve identified any of those teammates that may be sickle cell-positive so that they’re aware and then we’re aware so that we know [how] to look forward together. If they do test positive, we give them the ability to separate with minimal issues there [and] we want them to understand [that it’s] medical. But I will tell you that the vast majority of those folks want to continue to be part of our team,” he said.

There have been three PT-related deaths in the last six months, the most recent at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in August. In June, Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina briefly suspended all PT tests after two airmen died less than a week apart following completion of their PFAs.

Last week, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright said the added questionnaire on the prescreening survey was a result of some of those deaths being linked to the sickle cell trait, but did not elaborate which of the airmen had the trait.

“One of the immediate changes was a greater and further testing of our airmen for that sickle cell trait,” Wright told Military.com on Oct. 9.

Wright additionally said as a result of the deaths, the service is weighing other changes, including administering the abdominal circumference test — known as the waist or tape test — at a separate time from the rest of the physical fitness assessment in order to prevent added body stress and unwanted injuries.

Wright told audiences at the annual Air, Space and Cyber conference last month that officials are considering administering the measurement at least seven days apart from the pushups, sit-ups and run components of the test.

“We have airmen who go to great lengths to get a good score on the abdominal circumference … because it counts for 20% of the test,” Wright said during his speech Sept. 18, adding some airmen have gone to extremes, even starving themselves, to pass the waist measurement test.

The current Air Force fitness test is gender and age-normed and combines a 1.5-mile run time with maximum pushup and sit-up repetitions within one minute.

Wright previously told Air Force Times that the tape test and PFA, if separated, should be taken more than seven but not more than 30 days apart.

He reiterated that the service is also reviewing other changes, such as instituting a mock test.

In July, Wright’s spokesman, Senior Master Sgt. Harry Kibbe, said the service began looking at the possibility of a no-fail trial PT test, that, if passed, would count as the airman’s official score.

The intent would be to reduce test-taking anxiety among airmen.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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