As they enlist soldiers to man operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, military recruiters are finding themselves on the front lines in a different sort of battle — one against the obesity epidemic.
And with the clock ticking down on the military's Sept. 30 recruitment
deadline for financial year 2010, the escalating number of overweight teens being turned away from recruitment centers has some military officials fearing for the future of the services.
“I know the importance of the people that serve in the military,” said Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, a retired Air Force
officer with more than 35 years of military experience. “It's not the
weapons. It's not the high-tech equipment we put on someone's desk. It's
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify more than 34 percent of American adults age 20 and older as “obese” — or having a body mass index higher than 30.
And up to 9 million Americans ages 17 to 24 — or nearly 27 percent of
the prime military recruiting age demographic — are “too fat to serve
in the military,” according to an April study
from Mission: Readiness, a non-profit group composed of senior retired
military officials. The report cited obesity as the leading medical
reason for candidates being deferred from the service, calling the
epidemic “a potential threat to our national security.”
According to the study, more than 140,000 individuals failed their
military entrance physicals between 1995 and 2008 because of weight
problems — a 70 percent increase over that same period.
Through his military career, Seip has seen the nation's obesity numbers
boom: In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But by 2009, only two areas — Colorado and the District of Columbia
— boasted an obesity rate of less than 20 percent, while 33 states had
rates greater than 25 percent and nine more had an obesity prevalence
beyond 30 percent.
“It's taken us years to get to where we are [with the obesity epidemic],
and it's gonna take years to get us back [to normal],” Siep said.
And with the military annually discharging more than 1,200 first-time
enlistees before their contract expirations because of weight problems,
according to the report, obesity imposes a hefty $60 million price tag
for the military to recruit and train replacements.
“[Obesity] is a critical long-term challenge, for not only the military,
but for the nation,” said Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of accession
policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and
Readiness. “We're talking about national health here, which is a significant issue for this country.”
In Philadelphia — where obesity rates are “significantly higher” than
the national average, according to an April Mission: Readiness study — recruitment challenges extend beyond the waistline.
Staff Sgt. Terrence Garrett, who heads Army
recruitment in the Philadelphia metro area, said that of the more than
1,000 of potential recruits he sees annually, about 75 percent do not
meet military standards — but it's not necessarily because of health
“Ninety percent of the people that come in haven't been to jail, haven't
been locked up. They've just been arrested, and that's on their
record,” Garrett told ABC News, adding that charges for drugs or
violence can disqualify potential recruits from enlisting.
He also cited education
as a major reason for turning away prospective recruits, estimating
that only 20 to 30 percent of potential enlistees that he sees are able
to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the
military's SAT-like entrance examination that tests arithmetic
reasoning, mathematics knowledge, paragraph comprehension and word
In imposing both physical and “quality” standards — including
educational and aptitude benchmarks — for all enlistees, the military
is a “selective employer,” and the standards are key to recruitment,
“We call this an all-volunteer force, don't we? But it's really an
all-recruited force,” he told ABC News. “I think over the near term,
[recruitment] is steady as she goes, if you will.”
2009 was the first year since the 1973 formation of the all-volunteer
force when all active and reserve components of the U.S. military —
including the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — met or exceeded
their recruitment goals, both in terms of quantity and quality, according to the Department of Defense.
With recruits for both the active duty and reserve forces “slightly
ahead” of their year-to-date goals, the military is on track to reach
its 300,000-strong recruit benchmark for 2010, said Gilroy.
But while the numbers might seem re-assuring, many blame the economy for the enlistment boost, as more teens turn to a military career in the face of a tough job market.
“I think the key word there is 'for the first time.' It was the first
time in history [for such record recruitment numbers],” said Amy Dawson
Taggert, national director for Mission: Readiness. “A weak economy is no formula for staffing a strong military.”
Taggert and her Mission: Readiness have launched a campaign against unhealthy school lunches, lobbying for stricter school nutrition standards and increased anti-obesity programming for children.
But for Seip and other military officers of generations past, the help can't come soon enough.
“That's our future,” Seip said. “If we don't get that right, then bad on
us, because we have no one else to blame but ourselves.”