WASHINGTON: A study initiated by more than 100 retired generals and admirals claims that being overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why potential recruits fail to qualify for military service.
The group, who call themselves “Mission: Readiness,” released their study in April. The report, called “Too Fat to Fight,” outlines how America’s obesity statistics are seen by some as a security threat. The study calls on Congress to pass nutrition legislation to remove junk food from schools and clean up the quality of lunchroom meals.
“Child obesity has become so serious in this country that military leaders are viewing this epidemic as a potential threat to our national security,” retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson wrote in the report.
According to the study, the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults who were overweight or obese went from one to 39 in 10 years. Also, 75 percent of Americans aged 17-24 are ineligible for military service because of their weight, educational status or criminal history.
“Over the past 30 years, while adult rates of obesity have doubled, childhood obesity rates have tripled,” states the report.
And while current recruiting quotas are being met, some military leaders worry that the shrinking pool of eligible potential servicemembers will cause problems for future generations.
“If you stood up 10 17-24 year-olds in a room, less than three would be eligible to come in,” said Maj. Gen. Don Campbell, commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
Campbell, who is responsible for keeping recruiting numbers up throughout the Army, said rising obesity rates worry him as a citizen. But, he said, troop levels are not yet being affected.
Campbell said he focuses on holding his recruiters to the highest standard, so potential enlistees have something to look up to.
“It’s a challenge that all the services are facing now and will continue to face in the future,” Campbell said.
But recruiters don’t seem to be feeling the effects of overweight applicants — yet.
Staff Sgt. Patrick A. Derr, a recruiter in Springfield, Va., said he turns away one or two potential Soldiers per week for being overweight, but that number seems common-place throughout his occupation.
Derr said in his nearly three years as a recruiter, he hasn’t noticed an uptick in overweight applicants and that he’s not worried that recruiting quotas will be hard to meet in the future.
He said those who have enlisted in the Army but need to get into better shape before shipping to basic training are invited to participate in a future Soldier physical fitness training program where tips on diet and exercise are given. However, Derr said, recruiters are not doctors or personal trainers, and can only give suggestions.
“The biggest thing is their willingness to continue and to work out on their own,” Derr said of applicants losing weight. “Even if they exercise with us a few times per week, they still need to work out on their own.”
Sgt. 1st Class Donald J. Gallagher, a recruiter in Altoona, Pa., said the national obesity percentages don’t concern him very much either.
“It’s hard to say whether it will become a problem or not,” Gallagher said. “The statistics are there … but through the hard work of recruiters we’ll always be able to keep our Army supplied with qualified people.”
Gallagher, a recruiter for two years, said the rural location of his recruiting station may be why he rarely has to turn away applicants for being overweight.
“Everyone here is into sports,” he explained.
While he agrees that America is becoming more obese as a nation, Gallagher believes that those who need to can cut the weight to join — if they are motivated.
Lyndsey N. Clark, from Charlotte, Tenn., recently did just that: the 18-year-old dropped 80 pounds to meet the Army’s height and weight requirements.
Clark, who graduated from high school in May and will be shipping to basic training Oct. 19, said she started losing weight about 10 months ago to meet her goal of joining the Army.
Clark said she met with recruiters weekly who helped her with diet and exercise, and would give her suggestions when her weight loss plateaued.
“It’s not impossible,” Clark said. “If you’re motivated and really want it, it’s not impossible. You just need to believe in yourself.”
But will recruiters be hard-pressed to keep numbers up when the job market improves as some critics have suggested?
“A failing economy is no formula for filling the ranks of a strong military,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip says in the report. “These longer-term eligibility problems are not going away.”