Morale: The Battle of the Bulge


April 15, 2010: The U.S. Air Force is losing the Battle of the Bulge. Overweight airmen are a growing problem. Some bases find that over 40 percent of their personnel are overweight. So the air force is changing menus in its dining halls, and what snacks are available in stores on base. More exercise programs are being created, and physical fitness standards are being enforced.

By service, the air force is the fattest (6.7 percent overweight) and the marines the thinnest (1.2 percent overweight.) Weight is more of a problem with older troops. Thus 6.6 percent those 40 or older are overweight, compared to only 1.6 percent of those under 20. As in the civilian world, women have a harder time with weight. Fifteen percent of military personnel are female, and 7.2 percent of them are currently overweight.

The military will discharge troops who are fat, although a fair amount of leeway is given. 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. Even before September 11, 2001, the air force brass were becoming alarmed at a weakening resolve, among their troops, to stay in shape. There has been an ongoing crackdown as a result.

The army and marines have always been more strict about staying in shape. But this time around, the air force and navy got religion as well. Both of these services have imposed more strict weight and physical fitness standards that must be met, otherwise you get discharged (fired). Part of this arose because of feedback from the thousands of air force personnel who were sent to help the U.S. Army carry out support functions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many air force personnel found that they were in poor physical shape, especially for service in a combat zone. They noted that army troops were in much better physical condition, even those doing the same support jobs the air force "augmentees" were performing. Being in better shape helped you survive the dangers of combat.

This resulted in higher physical standards for airmen, and those that could not make it were cast out. As a result, in 2003, 331 air force personnel were discharged for not being fit, or thin, enough. The rules were then changed to give more slack on the weight (which often penalized body builders) and instead imposed a simple fitness test (1.5 mile run and timed push-ups and sit-ups, the number varying with age and gender). Thus in 2004, only one airman got thrown out for failing the physical fitness test (many more got medical discharges for infirmities suffered because of work related incidents.) In 2005, seven got discharged for failing the fitness tests, and in 2006, that rose to 73. In 2007 (which ends on September 30th in the military), 119 were discharged. But then, someone at the top noted a general slackening when it came to enforcement. To remedy this, the air force is using civilian contractors to administer the tests (rather than air force personnel).

The main reason for the latest changes (which only up the physical standards a bit) was the realization that many commanders were not pushing physical fitness as much as the brass wanted. The reason for that was a quiet revolt in the ranks against all the new emphasis on being buff. For many unit commanders, it was a morale issue, and the work doesn't get done as well when the troops are in a bad mood. It's expected that there will be a big increase in the number of troops (10-20 percent of them) failing the test because of the new rules. This will result in lots of activity in the gym, and all over bases, as airmen hustle to prepare for the next test (which is now held every six months.)

The air force thought it would be able to tighten up physical standards partly because they have been shrinking their personnel strength over the past few years. Automation and downsizing have been having an impact, just as these trends have been showing up in so many civilian organizations. It still hurts when you lose scarce technical specialists, but these fellows are constantly tempted with higher paying civilian jobs anyway. Not so much now, with the recession going on, but the threat is always there.






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