Attrition: Fat And Very Unhappy


October 15, 2012: Starting November 1st, officers and NCOs attending U.S. Army Professional Military Education (PME) schools will have to meet all weight and physical fitness standards first. Otherwise, the soldier will not be allowed to attend. This will show up on their record as “failed to achieve course standards.” This will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the soldier to get promoted. If you don't get promoted within a certain amount of time you must leave the service.

This is the reinstatement of a rule that was suspended during the height of the fighting in Iraq. For the last five years troops could attend PME courses without meeting weight and physical fitness tests. That was because there was a war on and the army could not afford to lose otherwise qualified leaders. But now its peace time and the army can rely more on appearance than reality.

The weight issue has become particularly acute as many troops have undergone multiple, and very stressful, combat tours. While overseas, booze is forbidden, smoking is discouraged, and using illegal drugs will get you tossed out of the service. Prostitutes (and local women in general) are off-limits. What’s left are gyms or workout equipment (in some areas) and lots of food everywhere. Guess what the favorite stress-reliever is. The flab follows you home, as does a lot of the stress. It’s tough being a skinny combat veteran.

This emphasis on thin is one of many similar changes that impose more restrictions on how you can look. That means more conservative haircuts, shaving every day (even when off duty), fewer tattoos, and no visible piercings. Male troops cannot wear earrings at any time. No dental decorations, including gold caps. For female troops this means less makeup and dyed hair as well as shorter fingernails. There will be restrictions on what kind of civilian clothes can be worn on base. There are also a bunch of other petty restrictions, all intended to improve the appearance of the troops.

While fighting continues in Afghanistan, for the lifestyle police in the U.S. Army the war is over. Senior officers and NCOs who were dismayed at the usual wartime relaxation of appearance standards are now talking openly about putting more emphasis on marching and similar drills, as well as greater attention to wearing uniforms correctly and saluting every time you are supposed to. More effort is being directed at improving appearances. On the positive side, there will be growing emphasis on being physically fit, with more soldiers discharged for being too fat or unable to pass the physical fitness test.

But overall, emphasis will shift from being combat ready to appearing (especially to politicians and the media) combat ready. The troops call this "mickey mouse" (or a lot of less printable phrases). The troops don't like it but the senior officers and NCOs do. This time around the brass promised to change promotion standards to see that more pro-mickey mouse officers and NCOs rise in the ranks. This means going to the right service schools and getting the right assignments, as well as looking and acting like a good soldier should. It's the old "getting your ticket punched" mentality again.

During wartime the lifestyle police still try to take control but are stymied by wartime realities. For example, back in 2006, the U.S. Army was forced to back off on its "zero tolerance" rules on tattoos. "Zero tolerance" meant that if you had any tattoo showing (when you are dressed, wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants) the army would not take you. But after turning away so many otherwise qualified recruits the army changed the rule to allow innocuous tattoos to be showing. Moreover, the army didn't set any precise standards about what was acceptable and what was not. Enforcement was a judgment thing, with recruiters and staff at basic training centers often disagreeing over what was acceptable. The brass had been increasingly allowing recruiters to have the final say. After all, if the guys (and some gals) with visible tattoos, as a group, make good soldiers the tattoo policies themselves may be in danger. But now that fewer proven warriors are required the trend has moved towards appearance. In peacetime this is important because there is no trial by combat to prove who can fight and how well.


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