Ruby Murray, a master sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., came close to losing her job in 1998 because of nearly 90 pounds of post-pregnancy weight. Six months after she had her baby, the weight was still there, even after working out with fellow soldiers. "I couldn't put on my pants, and I refused to buy new clothes," she said. "I was used to wearing a size 8 or 10, and I needed a 16 and 18." And as a result, her company commander had gone so far as to draw up her discharge papers.
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Murray's case isn't that unusual: Enlisted soldiers have six months after giving birth to meet Army weight standards and pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). If they don't, they could be flagged and ultimately lose their jobs. Until recently, women started physical training with their regular units six weeks after delivery, outnumbered by fit and unsympathetic men and commanders with no experience in training soldiers recovering from childbirth. "They look down on you, no matter how good a soldier you were before," said Warrant Officer Jacey Martin, a new mother and soldier at Fort Bragg.
Only half of soldiers who were new moms passed their training tests six months after childbirth, and a third didn't meet the Army's weight and body composition standards, according to Department of Defense statistics published by The Army Times in 2006. Many ended up leaving the service.
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Murray on a mission
In Murray's case, she asked forand was givenone more chance. She started working out at a women's-only gym outside of Fort Bragg and hired a personal trainer. Within two months, she began to get her body back. Murray found what she calls "her happy place"the point where she could mentally shut out negative feelings and draw on her "intestinal fortitude." Within six months, Murray had lost her baby weight and passed her physical training test. But more than that, Murray had resolved to help other soldiers who are also new moms.
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Fitness for new moms gets a makeover
There was a postpartum physical training program at Fort Bragg at the time, but it was still in its early stages, optional, and run by a man. Murray, pumped from her own success, volunteered to take over the class. "I wanted people to understand that if they can find their happy place and their own intestinal fortitude, their bodies can do more than they expect," she said. She's led the program at Fort Bragg ever since, with the exception of several deployments (including a year in Korea, where she started a similar program).
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Now many women leave the postpartum fitness program in the best shape of their lives. In the first quarter of 2009, 89% of women in the Fort Bragg program passed their fitness tests within six months after delivery, with 44% beating their own pre-pregnancy scores, according to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. "My Army Physical Fitness Training test (APFT) score two weeks ago is better than it was in 1999, 10 years ago," said 31-year-old Warrant Officer Jacey Martin.
And more women stay in the Army after completing the course, as well. Specialist Kimberly Newell reenlisted for six years after she passed her APFT. “Being able to pass the Army fitness test and meet the weight standard helped me make my final decision,” Newell said. “I think without Master Sgt. Murray, I would have left the military.”
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The Army takes notice
In December 2007, the Army decided to duplicate the success of the Fort Bragg program and others like it with a standarized version that's going Army-wide, called Pregnancy/Postpartum Physical Training (PPPT). Enlisted soldiers who normally do physical training with their units are required to enroll in thes programs shortly after learning that they’re pregnant.
The program follows guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which encourages exercise throughout pregnancy, and hosts hour-long workouts at least three days a week. It also includes parenting classes. It's been so successful that some Marine and Air Force personnel sit in on Army PPPT Leader Training courses, planning to implement similar programs. And it's not just for the ladies: Men who attend these classes as guests leave sweaty and out of breath, as well. They take away new experiences to replace stereotypes about what pregnant and postpartum soldiers can do.
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It's not just the push-ups and sit-ups
The camaraderie of being with other new and expectant moms builds on Murray's own brand of motivation and passion. "I'm very careful about what I say. I push them, but I never say anything negative. They have all these other negative voices pulling at them, and I teach them how to shut that out and build themselves and their self-esteem back up," says Murray.
The women who've worked with Murray say the success doesn't just come from the exercise: “It’s not the push-ups and sit-ups,” Martin said. "Part of the reason I was able to keep going was because of the pep talks Master Sgt. Murray gives. For me, that was my coffee. I call it ‘Murray juice.’"
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