Attrition: Fit To Fight

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October 5, 2019: The American military continues to lose ground in its effort to eliminate excess body fat. Despite increased physical training and discharges of personnel who allow weight problems to interfere with doing their jobs, nearly 18 percent of personnel are technically obese. That rate inches up year after year. Four years ago it was 16 percent. The rate varied according to service. The navy rate was 22 percent, the marines 8.3 percent, the army 17 percent and the air force 18 percent.

There were several reasons for the extraordinarily low rate for the marines. Of all the services the marines have the highest proportion of combat jobs and the highest proportion of younger troops. In addition, the marines practice what they preach when they say “every marine a rifleman.” All marines are expected to be combat ready and able to move and shoot in a combat environment. Aside from the marines, who still get most of their support personnel, including combat medics, from the navy, other services have about 90% of their personnel in non-combat jobs. Some of these troops would never serve close to any fighting and do jobs indistinguishable from their civilian counterparts. But all of these jobs require some special military training or at least the likelihood of going overseas in wartime or transfer to a similar job that would be in a combat zone. So if you wear the uniform you must be physically fit and ready for the possibility of ending up in a combat zone. What the military considers overweight and obese is not always visible with a lot of troops are in uniform standing at attention. But extra weight does have an impact on annual physical fitness tests and whenever it interferes with the job it is a major, often career ending, problem.

The military definition of overweight never meant grossly fat but very overweight as measured by BMI (body mass index). By this measure most American football players are obese and there is a similar problem with very fit combat soldiers who have little fat but a lot of muscle. Still, the military has less than half the percentage of overweight personnel than the general population when adjusted for age and gender. Moreover, the military has far fewer visibly overweight personnel because of the mandatory physical fitness tests administered each year. Failure to pass several of these usually means the end of your military career.

The main reason for the overweight problem is finding new recruits who are not disabled by too much fat and incapable of getting through basic training. Even the most physically fit troops, those in combat jobs, suffer a lot of disabling or career ending injuries because of the physically demanding nature of combat. This means a lot of combat troops are disabled each year from knee and back injuries or the kinds of injuries you usually associate with professional athletes. The military cannot afford to cut corners on the physical standards for those doing combat jobs.

That’s one of the reasons the number of Americans physically, morally and educationally qualified to join the military continues to shrink. The problem has been developing since the 1990s and there appears no end in sight. Yet at the same time, the army has learned from recent (and past) combat experience that physical fitness is a matter of life or death in combat zones. So some policies will not change no matter how few eligible recruits there are.

An example of this occurred in 2012 when the U.S. Army tightened its physical requirements for new recruits. That meant that male recruits could not have a body fat percentage higher than 24 percent (it used to be 26) and for females was 30 percent (it used to be 32). But once they were in they had to reduce that to 18 percent for males and 26 percent for females. The army tightened the body fat rules in 2012 because it was reducing its personnel strength and more soldiers wanted to stay in. Thus the army needed fewer new recruits each year. Because of the high unemployment rate right after 2008, more people were trying to join. To do that they had to be thinner or at least not obese. Body fat percentages greater than the new army standards are considered "fat" by the medical community. Moreover, most men with 24 percent (and women with 30 percent) body fat would appear chubby. Most soldiers, especially those in jobs requiring a lot of physical activity have closer to 15 percent body fat (22 percent for women). New male recruits with 24 percent body fat have six months to get it down to 18 percent and keep it there.

This emphasis on low body fat was because Americans have, since the 1990s, become very fat and out-of-shape. There are currently 35 million Americans of prime military age (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only about a quarter of them (9 million) are physically eligible for service. Each year the armed forces have to recruit about 150,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of potential recruits qualify. Each year recruiters have to convince about two 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, doesn't pay enough attention in school and is more inclined to try illegal activities. You not only have to be physically fit enough to join, but you also have to be smart enough and have no criminal record.

The enormous growth in computer entertainment and the subsequent massive reduction in the amount of exercise teenage boys get is the major reason for the body fat percentage crisis. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. Over half (now nearly 60 percent) of potential recruits are not eligible 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. Over a third of the people of military age are considered obese. Many of these big folks are eager to join and are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist. Few return light enough to sign up. Motivation and self-discipline are important in the military, where making mistakes can be fatal. That especially true in combat, but only about ten percent of soldiers are in jobs that involve looking for a fight. The rest have support jobs, many of them involving doing very important work for the troops doing the fighting. Mistakes here can get the supported troops killed. One reason the American army is a so much more effective force now that at any time in history is the screening of recruits and maintenance of those standards after the recruits are on the job.

During World War II the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.

This is not just an American problem. All Western nations (including Japan and South Korea) have similar problems with recruiting and maintaining training standards after recruit training. Even China is having a problem because so many Chinese families have suddenly become affluent since the 1980s. Worldwide nearly 40 percent of adults are over overweight and third of those were considered overweight. People dying from starvation makes for dramatic headlines because worldwide more people die from problems associated with being overweight and obese. Worldwide obesity rates have increased along with the massive reduction in poverty rates worldwide. In the last half-century obesity rates worldwide have tripled.

 


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