Contingency Operating Site Marez-East, Iraq — When soldiers stationed near Habur Gate, Iraq, had trouble finding time to visit their Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) gyms on base, they decided to create a new gym in an empty room of their company area for quick workouts.

Keeping fit is important to the soldiers in the Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 146th Field Artillery, Washington Army National Guard, under the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, about a third of whom are on call 24/7 with a 40-minute mission readiness time, says 1st Sgt. Scott Catlett, a native of Vancouver, WA, who helped spearhead the new gym project.

Upkeep of exercise equipment can be challenging in the Iraqi terrain, he says, especially cardio machines.

“Cardio can be a bit of a problem,” Catlett writes in an e-mail from Iraq. “Of course, we run and we sprint outside all the time, but we do have sand storms almost every week this time of year. I would love to have a couple of rowers and exercise bikes for the dusty days.”

Since dust and dirt “play havoc” with treadmills in the larger main gyms, and their gym is alongside one of the main dirt roads on the base, Catlett says treadmills especially could be problematic in their location.

Catlett formerly worked as a civilian law enforcement officer and was trained in police and military fitness programming. In addition to designing workouts that don't require gym equipment, Catlett and his company developed some unique homemade fitness equipment.

“Everything we have in the gym we have begged, borrowed or had it made on the base,” Catlett says. “Some items, like the kettlebells, we pitched in money and bought ourselves. The pull-up bars, dip station and squat rack were all made here on the base by our own welders.”

Catlett says the soldiers lift weights for strength training using a series of Olympic bar lifts, combined with pull-ups, push-ups, dips, jumps, balance and core exercises.

The company also developed some specialty items, such as DIY medicine balls made from old soccer balls and basketballs that were cut open and filled with gravel.

“Sand would have been used, but it's hard to come by. Who would have known in Iraq?” Catlett says.

Catlett also developed strength, power endurance, strength endurance and interval weight training workouts for the soldiers based on the CrossFit and Gym Jones 300 workout models.

For cardio exercise, Catlett instructed the soldiers in Tabata Interval training, which involves 20 seconds of maximum intensity exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated six to eight times.

Most of the workouts are timed and the results are posted to measure performance and progress.

“We have a saying around Bravo Battery that sums up our goals — as strong as I can be; as light as I can be,” Catlett says. “I have soldiers that can bench press and squat heavy loads, but can't pass the two-mile run on the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) — they are out of balance. Others lack the knowledge and/or motivation to improve their fitness level. I provide both at no cost.”

Many of the soldiers in the program have lost a lot of weight, Catlett says. The training not only prepares them for the APFT, but also makes them better soldiers.

“The new gym and the workouts have started an incredible fitness craze in my unit,” Catlett says. “And soldiers that have never passed an APFT since arriving at Bravo are passing it now with great scores. I tell the soldiers [that] the purpose of our training is not to help you pass the APFT; it is to make you more proficient at your chosen profession — soldiering. Passing the APFT with a good score is just a by-product.”

Catlett says the exercise groups have grown from three or four troops to as many as 20, and he has scheduled four daily workout periods to accommodate everyone.

“Soldiers from other units have stopped me in the chow hall or out on the street and asked if they can join in on the workouts,” he says. “I have had to put in additional work orders to have new equipment made, and we no longer have enough kettlebells or Olympic bars to go around. The PT [physical training] program for Bravo has grown almost out of control, and I like it.”