Attrition: Worse Than Heroin, And It's Legal


October 25, 2010: The U.S. Department of Defense spends over a billion dollars a year on helping the troops control their weight. That's more than is spent on controlling the use of recreational drugs, alcohol and tobacco. If you are in the military, fat is not your friend. Chocolate, and sugary stuff in general, is your enemy.

The military has a problem with fat even as it tries to obtain new recruits. A fourth of potential military recruits can't join because they are too overweight. This is a big change from World War II, when obesity was rare, and recruits who were too thin were more common. But since then, the introduction of TV, video games, computers and a lot more fun food has led to the largest generation. But it's more than just a lack of exercise and too many Twinkies. It's unhealthy lifestyle in general.

Thus one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is the bad lifestyles of young Americans. There are 32 million Americans in the prime military age group (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only 13 percent of them are eligible for service. Each year, the armed forces have to recruit 180,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year, recruiters have to convince 2.7 percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little and doesn't pay enough attention in school.

Some 57 percent of potential recruits are lost because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs, but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. The big folks who are eager to join, are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist, but few return light enough to sign up. Fat is a fearsome foe.

Once in uniform, American troops often find themselves putting on the pounds because of stress. And this weight gain was made easier because of the many fattening foods available in army mess halls. In 2003, the percentage of U.S. military personnel classified as overweight was not quite two percent (1.75 percent). That's where it had been since the 1990s. But since then, the rate of overweight has gone up sharply. By 2005 is was 2.9 percent. By 2007 it was 4 percent. Now it is over four percent.

It's all about stress. There's a war going on, and "comfort food" works in a combat zone. That's just as well, because in today's combat zones there's no alcohol, and no sexual activity with the locals (well, it's energetically discouraged). There's also an ongoing campaign to discourage smoking, and a regular testing program to make illegal drugs career suicide. What's an anxious troop to do? Eat. There's plenty of food, and more of it is fattening (more sugar, more fat and larger portions). Thus over a third of the troops admit to eating as a way to deal with stress.

Not everyone in uniform has problems with comfort food. Infantry units have virtually no overweight troops. But these comprise less than five percent of all military personnel, and many of them actually lose weight during a combat tour. Most of the added fat is found on support troops (the other 95 percent).

By service, the air force is the fattest (more than six percent overweight) and the marines the thinnest (about one percent overweight.) Weight is more of a problem with older troops. Thus those 40 or older are four times more likely to be overweight, compared to those under 20. As in the civilian world, women have a harder time with weight. Fifteen percent of military personnel are female, and about seven percent of them are currently overweight.

The military will discharge troops who are fat, although a fair amount of leeway is given. For example, the U.S. Navy does not consider a five foot, nine inch male in danger of discharge at long as they weigh no more than 186 pounds. That is about twenty pounds more than the "desirable" weight. The navy, and the other services, also use Body Fat Standards (what percentage of an individual's weight is fat). For the navy, It's 22 percent for men, and 33 percent for women. All services have also learned to cope with very muscular individuals. People like this, usually guys, really stand out in person. No way these fellows are "fat," they are just big, and intimidating. Just the sort of person you'd want on your side. But on paper, these people are often classified as overweight, too overweight to stay in. After several embarrassing incidents, the regulations have been amended to recognize the muscular troops for what they are (big, but not overweight.)

The military makes an effort to get chubby troops down to a safe weight. But each year, hundreds of overweight troops, who fail to lose the pounds, are discharged from the service. For many of those who served in a combat zone, and dealt with the stress via food, they are just another casualty of war. A career dies, even if the soldier involved does not. The army found that when less fattening foods were all that was available in a combat zone, troop could still get their "comfort food" high, but not put on as many pounds. Yes, the troops missed the real, fattening, comfort food. And many ordered supplies of the real stuff by mail. But three times a day, everyone went to the mess hall, and if the chow there was less fattening, it made a difference. This has also worked back home, and even in basic training, chubby new recruits encounter healthy foods they have rarely seen before, as well as much more physical exercise. Losing over 10 kg (22 pounds) in two months of basic is common, and because of the healthier mess hall chow, a lot of that stays off.





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