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Childhood obesity means fewer recruits

We retired four and 12 years ago, respectively, after a combined 64 years of active-duty service. Since retirement, both of us enjoy the great privilege of working closely with several military service organizations that brings us in regular contact with many of the great men and women currently serving in today’s U.S. armed forces.

Although we refrain from making comparisons, we strongly believe that the “all-volunteer” post-9/11 U.S. military services have evolved into the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. We must maintain our force readiness in order for America to remain strong. However, to maintain that readiness, we are challenged as we look to our future pool of candidates for the military.

Department of Defense statistics show that 71 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are not eligible for recruitment primarily because they are too overweight, poorly educated, or have a serious criminal record. This is a national security issue.

Surveys done for the Army’s Accessions Command, which carries the responsibility for recruiting and initial training of Army recruits, and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 1 in 5 young Americans are too heavy to join the military. As retired senior enlisted leaders and members of the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, we have seen firsthand the challenges that added costs and missed training days can have on the service. All told, the military currently spends more than $1 billion per year on weight-related diseases.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse these disturbing trends. We propose three key steps that would make a positive difference for America’s youth and preserve our long-term national security in the process.

Step One: Support healthier eating habits in our nation’s schools.

Extra calories from snacks and sugary drinks contribute to obesity and the rise of related chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Thirty-three percent of U.S. children and adolescents are on the way to becoming overweight or obese, and 25 percent of children ages 5 to 10 exhibit early warning signs for heart disease. Students consume almost 400 billion junk food calories at school per year, equal to almost 2 billion candy bars and more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway. One straightforward way to address this problem is to support efforts to offer healthy alternatives to junk food in school. We both grew up in diverse places in some pretty diverse schools and while we may not have always liked the lunches the public school system provided, we remember the options as being relatively healthy. What is consumed at school is only a small part of the problem, but it is a part that our tax dollars are supplementing. We need to encourage healthier eating habits among America’s youth in any way we can.

Step Two: Get kids to be more active.

Maintaining a healthy weight requires exercise in addition to a proper diet. As we support alternatives to unhealthy foods in our schools, we should also work to get more opportunities for physical activity back in. The first time a young person runs a mile in this country should not be when he shows up at recruit training.

Supporting physical activity has to become a priority and it has to start young. A nation of couch potatoes cannot defend the homeland and cannot fight and win wars.

Step Three: Support making summer breaks healthier for youth in your area.

Many students gain weight three times faster during the summer months than during the school year, according to a study by Ohio State University. That is not surprising since summer days are often spent playing video games, snacking on junk food and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages instead of engaging in outdoor activities and healthy eating. Kids need support to stay mentally and physically fit, and expanded opportunities are needed for low-income children to participate in summer camps and learning activities that keep minds and bodies in motion while connecting to learning during the school year.

For America to remain strong, we need a strong military. The next generation of Americans must have the physical ability to step up and take our places. Obesity in our youth is a growing problem for our society. It steals our children’s health and the negative impacts on their lives are mounting. Further, obesity is having a negative and growing impact on the readiness of our nation’s military. This is not just a societal issue. This is not just a recruitment issue. It is a national security issue.

Charles “Skip” Bowen was the 10th master chief petty officer of the U.S. Coast Guard. He is vice president of government relations for Bollinger Shipyards. Vincent W. Patton III was the eighth master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard. He is executive director of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational assistance for people engaged in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

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