In September, Mission: Readiness released a report called Retreat is Not an Option, and the results are staggering: About 1 in 4 young Americans ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to join the military. Weight is now the leading medical reason that prospective service members can’t join.
Mission: Readiness is a nonpartisan group of more than 450 retired admirals and generals dedicated to fighting for child health. According to the group, between weight issues and other disqualifiers like criminal backgrounds, more than 70 percent of young Americans are not eligible to serve in the military.
For these reasons, childhood obesity is seen by some as a national security issue. Mission: Readiness explains, “A shrinking pool of eligible recruits is a threat to our national security, and we are troubled by the likely impact that this will have on our future military preparedness and the success of upcoming generations.”
Mission: Readiness were staunch supporters of the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and now advocate for the implementation of these guidelines in all schools. The “obvious next step” in fighting childhood obesity, they say, is to focus on the food served in schools and get rid of junk food served there.
Childhood obesity isn’t the only health battle that the military is facing. According to the report, 12 percent of active duty service members are obese―an increase of 61 percent since 2002.
In 2012 alone, the Army dismissed 3,000 soldiers, and the Navy and Air Force each dismissed 1,300 for being overweight, obese or otherwise out of shape.
Obesity can also lead to higher rates of injuries like stress fractures and serious sprains. In one brigade stationed in Afghanistan, obese troops were 40 percent more likely to experience an injury than those with a healthy weight.
Obesity and its related problems are now costing the defense budget more than $1.5 billion a year for health care spending and recruitment of replacements for those who become unfit to serve.
“The military is working hard to improve the health of our troops and their families,” confirms Mission: Readiness.
According to a 2012 report from Mission: Readiness, the military is now sending overweight or obese recruits to a special training camp to address physical fitness issues before they can even begin basic training.
The report notes that, “In the most sweeping changes of military food services in 20 years, the Armed Services are bringing healthier foods with more fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and lower-fat offerings to dining facilities, Department of Defense (DOD) schools, and other places where service members and their families buy food on base, including vending machines and snack bars.”
There are also new programs such as Operation Live Well, a collection of resources and initiatives to improve the health of service members and their families. One pilot program, the Healthy Base Initiative, seeks to promote health among military families by providing nutrition and physical fitness education and creating environments that will support healthy behaviors.
The DOD is also focusing on their own schools. All the schools in their Fort Campbell district participate in the National School Lunch Program, which helps provide nutritionally balanced lunches to all children each day. They have also launched Farm-to-School programs and offer training for their food services workers on federal nutrition standards.
“The military cannot reverse the nation's obesity epidemic on its own,” says Mission: Readiness. “We need comprehensive action that involves parents, schools and communities to help children understand and make healthy food choices.”