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Too fat to fight? Military recruits and obesity

Whatever you think of U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a little unnerving to read a recent report by a panel of top retired military officers on the physical fitness of military recruits.

Titled "Too Fat to Fight," the April study bluntly concludes that 9 million 17- to 24-year-olds -- 27 percent of all young adults -- "are too fat to serve in the military." The report by the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness calls this trend "a threat to national security" and notes that "being overweight is now by far the leading medical reason for rejection." From 1995 to 2008, the study says, "the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physicals each year because they were overweight rose nearly 70 percent."

Within just 10 years, the number of states reporting that 40 percent of their 18- to 24-year-olds are obese or overweight went from one (Kentucky) to 39. In three states -- Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama -- more than 50 percent of the young adults were obese or overweight in 2008. To reach normal weight, the nation's out-of-shape young adults would have to lose a collective 390 million pounds, according to the report.

Despite the dire long-term predictions, all four military services are meeting their recruitment goals, both numerically and in terms of the qualifications of their personnel, according to Curtis L. Gilroy, who heads the Defense Department's recruitment efforts. In fact, no service has fallen short since 2005, when the Army fulfilled 92 percent of its need for troops.

But few find solace in the current state of affairs. Gilroy says that in the long run, "obesity is clearly an issue, not only for the nation, but for recruiting."

Amy Dawson Taggart, national director of Mission: Readiness, says the military's short-term recruiting success is largely due to a sour economy that is driving people into careers with the four services and keeping them there longer. This boom-bust cycle of military recruitment has been around for decades, she says.

"Just a couple of years ago, when the economy was booming, things were much more challenging," she says. "That's just not a sustainable way to run a military. What you need is to have a significant pool of qualified young people."

Gilroy says that military compensation and benefits and recruits' patriotism (four of 10 Army recruits cited serving their country as the reason for joining) also helped.

Volunteers who meet the height and weight guidelines also must pass a physical fitness test. It is not very difficult; I recently took it myself. I met Cliff Williams, assistant command fitness leader and a public affairs officer for the Navy's Richmond recruiting district, at a high school track near my home. The test was simple and brief: two minutes of sit-ups (I did 50), two minutes of push-ups (31) and a 1.5-mile run (13 minutes 35 seconds).

On the Navy's age-graded scale, my performance put me squarely in the "good" range for the 50-to-54 age group. If the Navy ever needs any 52-year-old recruits, I'm in.

A 17- to 19-year-old male recruit would have to do 50 sit-ups, 45 push-ups and a 12:30 run to achieve "probationary" status, the lowest passing grade. Standards for the Army, which has the most troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are similar.

Because the military is meeting its recruitment goals, it can afford to be more selective these days. Williams says the Navy doesn't see too many out-of-shape candidates come through recruiters' doors. It tells many overweight applicants not to apply until they improve their fitness. It recruits athletes and others who are physically fit. And many of those who volunteer off the street have figured out they'd better be in shape if they want to join.

Taggart says the top fitness priority is the passage of legislation, now pending in Congress, that is aimed at improving the quality of school meals (which provide 40 percent of some children's daily calories) and removing junk food from schools. The measures also would expand access to nutrition information for parents and kids.

The military has no formal position on the nutrition legislation, Gilroy says. But all four services help whip teens into shape through their Junior ROTC programs, now in 3,400 high schools across the country, he says.

Recruits can sign up but delay enlistment while they work themselves into shape, sometimes in programs sponsored and run by their recruiters. The Army also will take slightly overweight or very muscular applicants, who technically violate height-weight standards, and give them an alternative test of cardiovascular fitness.

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