In Defense Secretary Robert Gate's widely reported address last night to students at Duke University in North Carolina, he encouraged them to join the military and serve their nation. "If America's best and brightest young people will not step forward,' Gates reportedly said, 'who then can we count on to protect and sustain the greatness of this country?'
Gates' impassioned recruitment attempt is what garnered most of the headlines this morning. But what was not reported as widely is that, in not-so-subtle fashion, Gates also told the Duke students that a whopping three quarters of Americans of Army recruiting age are too fat to be allowed to serve their country in future wars.
According to a report today in the Herald Sun, the defense secretary said the US obesity problem is a major obstacle to ensuring the all-volunteer armed forces are adequately manned. 'An ever-growing portion of America's 17- to 24-year-olds - about 75 per cent - is simply ineligible or unavailable to serve for a variety of reasons, above all, health and weight requirements in an age of spiraling childhood obesity,' he told the students.
While this is the first time such a high-ranking member of the military has publicly addressed the problem of obesity among young Americans, it isn't the isn't the first time this subject has come up. A US study called "Too Fat to Fight," published this spring by more than 100 retired generals and admirals, concluded that child obesity poses a potential threat to America's national security and that, among other things, junk food needs to be removed from America's schools. They warned that, while current recruiting quotas are still being met, the shrinking pool of eligible service personnel would cause problems for future generations.
'Between 1995 and 2008, the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physicals each year because they were overweight rose nearly 70 percent,' the report concluded. "Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service. Today, otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight. If we don't take steps now to build a strong, healthy foundation for our young people, then it won't just be our military that pays the price ' our nation as a whole will suffer also.
The Army has apparently already begun to address the problem by changing its exercise routine. According to a recent New York Times piece, the traditional sit-up has been replaced by exercises like pilates and yoga, and long runs have been downgraded. The Army's new physical-training program has been rolled out this year at its five basic training posts that handle 145,000 recruits a year, according to the Times. Nearly a decade in the making, its official goal is to reduce injuries and better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat in rough terrain like Afghanistan.
'What we were finding was that the soldiers we're getting in today's Army are not in as good shape as they used to be,' said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who oversees basic training for the Army, told the Times. 'This is not just an Army issue. This is a national issue.'