How obesity is a national security concern

When thinking about the United States military, we conjure up images of Rambo and GI Jane, or Maverick and Iceman from Top Gun. The images are of lean, mean fighting machines who are ripped, fit and ready to take on America’s enemies. Movies are one thing, but reality paints a different picture.

recent report from The Heritage Foundation describes trouble ahead for the U.S. military. Based on 2017 Pentagon data, three-quarters of young Americans may be too unfit, unhealthy or otherwise unqualified to serve in the military.

Specifically, “71 percent of young Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the United States military.” In other words, “24 million of the 34 million people of that age group cannot join the armed forces — even if they wanted to.”

How can that be? What does this mean for the U.S. military with its all-volunteer force? What are the implications for national security in an increasingly hostile world?

Physical fitness is not the only barrier for those wanting to join the military. The four main reasons are health problems (32 percent), physical fitness (27 percent), education (25 percent) and criminality in 10 percent.

The Marines have the toughest fitness standards: two minutes of crunches, maximum pull-ups and a three-mile run — all scored by points. The Army is a little easier, requiring two minutes each of push-ups and sit-ups, and a timed two-mile run. Easier still is the Coast Guard with one minute each of push-ups and sit-ups and a 1.5-mile run. Those who are overweight or unfit will have a much more difficult time meeting the fitness standards to join any of the service branches.

Obesity begins in childhood with 19 percent of American children currently obese. There are plenty of reasons including poor diet, lack of exercise, too much time in front of the TV and elimination of recess time in many schools.

Obesity leads to health problems such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and joint problems, all preventing the fitness level needed for military service.

Education is another requirement for joining the military. A high school diploma or GED, “Ensures that recruits possess a minimum level of education, a basic understanding of written and cognitive skills, and enough ‘stick-to-itiveness’ to complete an organized program.” Graduation rates in many US cities range from 50 to 70 percent, disqualifying many students from future military service.

Finally, criminality is another barrier, preventing, “One of every 10 young adults from being able to join the Armed Forces—meaning that 3.4 million people who would otherwise make the cut are unable to join.”

Going forward, all service branches will be affected with the Army facing the greatest annual need. “The Army anticipates problems with meeting its 2018 goal to enlist 80,000 qualified volunteers.” The U.S. currently has 2.4 million total military personnel compared to China with 3.7 million. The U.S. not meeting her recruiting goals is a looming national security nightmare.

The simple knee-jerk solution is to change the standards. So what if a recruit needs 20 minutes to run a mile or can’t do more than five push-ups? Or has a criminal record or flunked out of high school? It’s mean and exclusionary to keep these young people from joining the armed forces.

Unfortunately, social engineering doesn’t lead to the lean, mean fighting machine necessary in a military conflict. Political correctness won’t win a war. Instead, Americans expect a well-trained, qualified military to defend the homeland.

Proposed solutions include public awareness and advocacy. Influential role models and junior programs have also been suggested. Well-meaning ideas that have not worked particularly well for other social issues including drugs, alcohol, crime, and delinquency. Obesity is on the rise despite the public awareness, from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to the popularity of fitness-related TV shows like American Ninja Warrior.

America has had an all-volunteer force since 1973. There is always the option of conscription, re-instituting the draft. Israel uses this approach. “Israel is unique in that military service is compulsory for both males and females. It is the only country in the world that maintains obligatory military service for women.” Described as a “social leveler” and a “womb for economic growth,” conscription has definite benefits.

Obesity and fitness are more than simply public health concerns. They represent a huge problem for the military and for national security.

Instead of Rambo, we have Michael Moore in camo fatigues. It’s certainly not the lethal fighting force ready to take on the challenges of today and the future.

Brian C. Joondeph is an ophthalmologist and can be reached on Twitter @retinaldoctor. This article originally appeared in the Daily Caller.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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