It's getting harder for the Army to find recruits within the service's weight standards. (Glenn Fawcett/Army)
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The obesity epidemic among young adults has become a weighty problem for Army Recruiting Command, leaving its commander, Maj. Gen. Allen Batschelet, to seek answers.
More than 71 percent of America’s youth would fail to qualify for military service because of their physical, moral or cognitive shortcomings, according to recruiting command statistics. But their weight is a leading reason, and it’s getting worse.
“What is very clear is that the trend is going in the wrong direction when it comes to [the recruiting pool] being physically fit,” Batschelet said.
Outside the Army, the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness warns that childhood obesity is draining America’s pool of ready military prospects, using the message to advocate for serving healthier food in schools. Recruits have more muscle mass than in past decades, but more body fat as well, according its most recent report.
National statistics paint a grim picture of a population of young adults who are unhealthily heavy and exercise infrequently. In 2007 through 2010, 23 percent of young adults age 18 to 24 were obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Only 7.6 percent of teens age 16 to 19 get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to a 2008 study published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
While cognitive and moral disqualifications have held steady, weight issues account for 18 percent of disqualifications, and the number is rising steadily, according to Batschelet. It’s projected to hit 25 percent by 2025, which Batschelet called “troubling.”
Though the Army is shrinking, Batschelet projects the demand for new active and Reserve troops will hold steady at about 85,000 per year over the next several years. The dearth of qualified troops will be a serious problem by 2020, Batschelet warned, placing the all-volunteer force’s supply-based model “at risk.”
Recruiting Command is examining several potential remedies Batschelet said he plans to propose in the coming months to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, and to other senior Army leaders.
Batschelet suggests the Army could adopt a conditional enlistment where a soldier would have time to get fit before going on active duty.
“We don’t have to bring them in, put them on active duty, because as soon as you spend 24 hours on active duty, you’re considered a veteran for life,” Batschelet said. “That could be an expensive proposition.”
Right now, as recruits enter the delayed entry program, they become part of the inactive Reserve. From there, USAREC offers a Future Soldier physical fitness program that, while popular, is strictly voluntary.
Instead, the Army could adjust the soldier’s obligations under the delayed entry program, partnering him with a Reserve unit with drill instructors. The soldier would be compelled to participate in PT to prepare to enter active duty.
The plan would be similar to a relaxation of body fat standards under the surge. At that time, recruits were accepted at 2 percent above the standard on the condition that they reach that standard within 180 days.
In 2012, the standards were restored to 24 percent body fat for men and 30 percent for women, costing the Army 1,236 enlistments per year.
The upside to higher standards is that heavier soldiers are also prone to injuries. Soldiers granted a waiver for weight problems during the period of relaxed standards were 47 percent more likely to experience musculoskeletal injuries, according to a 2011 Army study.
According to Batschelet, prospects are coming to recruiting stations heavier than in decades past, but the Army has maintained its standards. Should a recruit fail to meet height and weight standards at his ship date, he cannot ship and must renegotiate his contract.
The number of such recruits is lower than half of what it was in 2009 — 440 then and 178 last year — according to USAREC stats. The drop corresponds with a drop in recruits overall and better Future Soldier training events for enlistees, according to the command.
“The ones that are able to come in meet the standards, that’s consistent,” Batschelet said. “But the numbers coming to us as potentially qualified is coming down.”