The Army consistently misses its annual recruitment goals by double-digit percentages. In the most recent fiscal year, it brought in some 55,000 recruits. The goal was 65,000, Stars and Stripes reported in September. A year earlier it only took in 45,000.
One obstacle: Too many would-be candidates carry too much weight. Overweightness and obesity have reached high levels in the United States. At some point, too much body fat causes, or has the potential to cause, well-documented health effects.
The Army is finding success with remedial courses to help recruits meet standards and become ready to survive basic training. The physical component of the course deals in part with weight. But, according to data compiled by the American Security Project, obesity affects too many service members already in, threatening readiness and harming retention rates.
Complicating things for the military, no less than for other parts of society, is the way the health question of weight gets mixed up with judgment of people over self discipline or appearance.
In nearly all job situations, a person’s weight or appearance is not and should not be a criterion for whether they can do the job. In some cases weight causes disabilities, but if the job doesn’t require specific physical prowess, then you can’t discriminate on the basis of a physical disability.
That’s the big difference in the military context. Physical stamina and strength and the requirements of certain pieces of equipment or vehicles do come into play. In most of the civil service, if someone acquires a disability, they receive reasonable accommodation. In the military, a disability can get you separated.
Medicine, therapy and training can often fix some physical conditions. Overweight and obesity is one of them. Not always, but sometimes.
That researchers at the American Security Project have published findings that more than two thirds of active duty military members are overweight or obese, and that the prevalence of these conditions steadily rises. The Project’s Courtney Manning chides the armed forces for no longer gathering body mass index (BMI) statistics, and therefore not having good data with which to go after the problem. She has a long list of recommendations for the Defense Health Agency, including this: “Body composition and military appearance regulations should be wholly reviewed and brought in line with evidence-based research. Policies allowing commanders to arbitrarily assign or exempt obese service members from medical intervention should be rescinded.”
You can find a library of literature on the problems with the BMI measurement, both medical and cultural. A recent article in a British medical journal cautions the BMI is only one factor in evaluating a person’s physical condition. Some people have big bones. Some have both ample muscle and fat. BMI doesn’t show a person’s VO2 max, their ability to process oxygen, which is an indicator of stamina.
However, the armed services deal with physical readiness, Manning has a point that it needs a data-driven approach.
In my interview, she emphasized a point stated in the American Security Project report: “The growing prevalence of obesity in service members reduces the readiness of the all-volunteer military, but it isn’t a moral failing; it’s a health crisis.”
That’s the key: Take the judgment out of weight, and deal with the fitness.
Anyhow, weight and physique alone are very rough indicators of what an individual can do. Having been a runner for 30 years — I’m talented but I persist — I’ve seen skinny-as-a-rail folks who are slow and lack stamina, as well as those carrying a bit of extra weight who run like gazelles. And vice versa.
Of all Americans of eligible age to serve in the military, less than 25% are suitable, whether because of psychological conditions, criminal records, drug use or weight. Of those eligible, not all are inclined to consider military service. So the Army must do all it can to nurture and preserve the tiny sliver of the population willing and able to serve.