A group of retired flag officers are (again) sounding the alarm about the nation's obesity epidemic, and its impact on national security.
Mission: Readiness, which bills itself as "Military Leaders for Kids," held a high-profile press conference in Washington last week, warning that many young men and women don't qualify for military service because they are overweight. By their estimates, at least nine million young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are too fat to serve in the U.S. armed forces. That's 27 percent of all young adults in this country.
According to the group's new study, "Too Fat to Fight," being overweight is the leading reason that prospective recruits are medically rejected for service. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of enlistees who failed their entrance physical for being too fat grew at a rate of 70% a year.
That figure is hardly surprising, considering the rise in childhood obesity rates during the same period. In 1998, only one state (Kentucky) reported at least 40% of its young adults were overweight or obese; ten years later, 39 states were on that list. The Journal of the American Dietary Association estimates that one-third of our children (23 million children or teens) are either overweight or obese.
Clearly, those statistics will translate into fewer young Americans who meet minimum standards for military service. And, if concerns about fat kids sounds familiar, it should. In recent months, First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity a personal crusade, voicing similar fears during recent public events.
To help curb the epidemic, both Ms. Obama and the retired flag officers are recommending better nutrition in the nation's schools. Among their recommendations: get rid of junk food in cafeterias and vending machines; increase funding for the school lunch program and use Head Start to teach healthy eating and exercise habits to pre-schoolers.
While these ideas clearly have merit, we're waiting for someone to tackle the "other" reasons that young people are denied enlistment in the armed services. According to the Mission: Readiness study, 75% of those that don't qualify are rejected for "one or more reasons." These include an inability to meet minimum scores on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a reflection of our abysmal high school graduation rates (one in four 17-24 year olds don't receive their diploma on time). Another 10% can't sign up because of their criminal records, while others are rejected for chronic medical conditions or the use of psychotropic drugs to treat ADHD and other conditions.
Besides (as we've noted in previous posts), the military is willing to work with recruits who want to shape up and lose weight. A column in today's Newark Star-Ledger details the efforts of Vasti Cedeno, a former New York graduate student who decided to join the Army after meeting soldiers on a humanitarian mission to Uganda. But to achieve her goal, Ms. Cedeno had to lose more than 110 pounds to meet military standards. After a year of diet and rigorous exercise, Cedeno will ship out for basic training later this year, well within Army weight limits.
On the other hand, solving the education and crime issues will prove more difficult. That's why we'd like to see the retired generals and admirals (along with Mrs. Obama) tackle those problems as well. Recruits who really want to serve can lose weight; getting rid of a criminal record or overcoming a severe educational deficit is almost impossible.