Too fat to fight: Obesity hurts national security, study says
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press | Published: October 11, 2018
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Eight years after publishing a report titled “Too Fat to Fight,” a group of retired admirals and generals said Wednesday that obesity continues to threaten national security.
The group, Mission: Readiness, said obesity disqualifies 31 percent of young Americans from military service, up from 27 percent eight years ago. The new report, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” cites Defense Department data and independent studies.
The group has been beating this drum for years. It followed “Too Fat To Fight” in 2010 two years later with a study called “Still Too Fat To Fight.” In 2014, it published “Retreat Is Not An Option,” which offered much the same picture.
The obesity problem is part of a larger concern. Overall, about 71 percent of Americans in that 17-24 age group do not qualify for military service due to criminal records, a poor education or other factors that include obesity.
National statistics offer little evidence of a turnaround, although one member of Mission: Readiness sees reason for hope at the state and local level.
“Childhood obesity in some states … is not getting worse and may be in some cases getting better,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a College of William and Mary graduate who now serves with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank.
Although nearly one-third of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are too overweight to serve, the problem begins in childhood, the study says. The obesity rate among 2-year-old children is 14 percent; it climbs to 18 percent in the 6-11 age group.
The study points to preschools and child care centers as the first line of attack against childhood obesity.
It cites the Child and Adult Care Food Program as an example of good public policy. The program provides financial support for child care and other providers to receive nutritious meals and snacks.
School cafeterias are another battleground. New standards in the National School Lunch Program have increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 16 and 23 percent respectively, the study says.
Spoehr suggested schools should get more serious about recreation, providing students with more time for physical activity.
Ultimately, he said, overarching federal solutions may not be the best answer.
The group has been effective at the state level, where elected officials and policymakers are closer to the problem, he said. Then it’s just a matter of replicating what works.
“You get successes and you build on those,” he said.
Problems in the ranks
The Army recently announced it had missed its recruiting goal for 2018, the first time that’s happened since 2005. It had hoped to sign up 76,500 recruits and fell short by 6,500.
Army leaders pointed to the stronger economy as one reason why fewer young Americans are looking to the military for a career. But obesity and other factors limit the pool of available recruits, and the concerns don’t stop there. Some active-duty troops also need to shape up.
“Service members are not immune from the nationwide rise in obesity,” the report states.
In 2015, 7.8 percent of active-duty service members were considered overweight based on height and weight. That represented a 73 percent increase since 2011. Each year, the Defense Department spends $1.5 billion on health care related to obesity, although that covers active duty and former service members and their families.
The Army has attacked the problem by changing its physical fitness test that ties training to actual battlefield tasks, such as pulling a wounded comrade to safety or hauling heavy ordnance. It is replacing the traditional two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a 2-mile run, a test that is nearly 40 years old.
Army leaders at Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Fort Eustis in Newport News, developed the new test. Back in August, they jogged onto a field to take it.
“I think it’s far superior to what I’ve been doing for the past 36 years,” said Gen. Stephen Townsend, TRADOC commander. “The day I took it, I knew this is exactly what the Army needs.”
The Army also implemented a baseline physical test in January 2017 that assesses the condition of new recruits before they enter basic training. It helps the Army determine if recruits are a good match for their chosen job, and it can serve as a wake-up call for soldiers-to-be who are out of shape or need to work on a particular area.