Childhood obesity means fewer recruits

Department of Defense statistics show that 71 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are not eligible for recruitment primarily because they are too overweight, poorly educated, or have a serious criminal record. This is a national security issue.

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U.S. Coast Guard photo.
U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This story originally appeared in Stars and Stripes and was written by Charles “Skip” Bowen and Vincent W. Patton III

We retired four and 12 years ago, respectively, after a combined 64 years of active-duty service. Since retirement, both of us enjoy the great privilege of working closely with several military service organizations that brings us in regular contact with many of the great men and women currently serving in today’s U.S. armed forces.

Vince Patton (left) and Charles "Skip" Bowen (right). U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Vince Patton III (left) and Charles “Skip” Bowen (right). U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Although we refrain from making comparisons, we strongly believe that the “all-volunteer” post-9/11 U.S. military services have evolved into the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. We must maintain our force readiness in order for America to remain strong. However, to maintain that readiness, we are challenged as we look to our future pool of candidates for the military.

Department of Defense statistics show that 71 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are not eligible for recruitment primarily because they are too overweight, poorly educated, or have a serious criminal record. This is a national security issue.

Surveys done for the Army’s Accessions Command, which carries the responsibility for recruiting and initial training of Army recruits, and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 1 in 5 young Americans are too heavy to join the military. As retired senior enlisted leaders and members of the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, we have seen firsthand the challenges that added costs and missed training days can have on the service. All told, the military currently spends more than $1 billion per year on weight-related diseases.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse these disturbing trends. We propose three key steps that would make a positive difference for America’s youth and preserve our long-term national security in the process.

Step One: Support healthier eating habits in our nation’s schools.

Extra calories from snacks and sugary drinks contribute to obesity and the rise of related chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Thirty-three percent of U.S. children and adolescents are on the way to becoming overweight or obese, and 25 percent of children ages 5 to 10 exhibit early warning signs for heart disease. Students consume almost 400 billion junk food calories at school per year, equal to almost 2 billion candy bars and more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway. One straightforward way to address this problem is to support efforts to offer healthy alternatives to junk food in school. We both grew up in diverse places in some pretty diverse schools and while we may not have always liked the lunches the public school system provided, we remember the options as being relatively healthy. What is consumed at school is only a small part of the problem, but it is a part that our tax dollars are supplementing. We need to encourage healthier eating habits among America’s youth in any way we can.

Step Two: Get kids to be more active.

Maintaining a healthy weight requires exercise in addition to a proper diet. As we support alternatives to unhealthy foods in our schools, we should also work to get more opportunities for physical activity back in. The first time a young person runs a mile in this country should not be when he shows up at recruit training.

Supporting physical activity has to become a priority and it has to start young. A nation of couch potatoes cannot defend the homeland and cannot fight and win wars.

Step Three: Support making summer breaks healthier for youth in your area.

Many students gain weight three times faster during the summer months than during the school year, according to a study by Ohio State University. That is not surprising since summer days are often spent playing video games, snacking on junk food and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages instead of engaging in outdoor activities and healthy eating. Kids need support to stay mentally and physically fit, and expanded opportunities are needed for low-income children to participate in summer camps and learning activities that keep minds and bodies in motion while connecting to learning during the school year.

For America to remain strong, we need a strong military. The next generation of Americans must have the physical ability to step up and take our places. Obesity in our youth is a growing problem for our society. It steals our children’s health and the negative impacts on their lives are mounting. Further, obesity is having a negative and growing impact on the readiness of our nation’s military. This is not just a societal issue. This is not just a recruitment issue. It is a national security issue.

11 comments on “Childhood obesity means fewer recruits”

  1. Really good article. A billion a year in medical costs due to being fat. That does not count the inability to do the job because a person is to fat. “It is a national security issue!”

    1. You’re right, conradswims. Not only is $1 billion per year on weight-related diseases pretty astonishing, it does start to factor into military readiness. We’ve got to find more ways to attract those already committed to physical fitness, and also ensure we’ve got programs in place for those currently serving that permit them to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

      Very respectfully,
      Steven W. Cantrell,
      Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard

  2. Step four: Start recruiting athletic, well educated candidates without a criminal record for the enlisted ranks with bonuses payable in installments as they successfully complete phases of their service time.

    1. That is exactly who they recruit. The bonuses are paid out in fully but the recruits are all in good physical shape. Even for the older members there are standards that are upheld. I saw 3 people forced into retirement because they could not “make weight” they all had 20+ years in (hence forced to retire rather than just discharge)

  3. The problem is, that the US Military has physical standards that have not changed since the Vietnam war era. It’s why the US Military is getting harder and harder to recruit people. If they changed the standards for people to apply for a curtain job that is not physically demanding, then they would get more people in.

    1. All jobs in the Coast Guard (and military) can be physically demanding regardless of rate.

      I’m a Yeoman, you could say that a Yeoman should not have to follow the same “entry” requirements – physical and weight
      standards – as operational rates since in the field we “only” do paper work.

      But a Yeoman at a PSU has to be weapons qualified, attend PUS basic, and may have to get water survival master, combat medic, boat crew, security forces qualified. All physically demanding jobs.

      If the entry standards were lowered for all “less physically demanding jobs” – no Yeoman would be able effective at Strike Teams,
      RAID teams, PSU’s since they would not be physically qualified to perform required collateral duties.

      Ultimately every military member, whether in an support or operational role, must be ready to perform both physically and mentally demanding jobs. IMO lowering physical entry and weight standards won’t create that workforce; the societal change the Master Chiefs suggest is a much better start.

      1. Some great points and examples. Thanks for sharing, Yeoman Norton! And thank you for your dedication to proficiency and resiliency.

        Respectfully,
        Christopher Lagan
        U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs

  4. For me joining the Coast Guard was my fitness goal. About a year before i joined the Coast Guard I decided i wanted to join. I however was very overweight. I was 290lbs at the time and in way close to being the right body fat %. So my goal was to make weight so i could join. It took about a year of diet and exercise but i was able to do it. In fact I was actually under by a couple % on the body fat measure.

    1. What an inspirational story, Heath! Thanks for sharing.

      Respectfully,
      Christopher Lagan
      U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs

    2. Wow, Heath! To commit to a diet and exercise plan for an entire year shows tremendous dedication to your goal of being a Coast Guardsman. Thanks for sharing your story.

      Very respectfully,
      Steven W. Cantrell,
      Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard

  5. Vince and Skip, thanks so much for highlighting this important issue. And thanks for your enduring commitment to military professionalism. I hope to see you next time you’ve got business around HQ!
    – Steve

    Steven W. Cantrell,
    Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard

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