America’s Obesity Problem Is a National Security Issue

Young people are so out of shape that they’re being turned away from military recruitment centers.
(Photo: Sean Murphy/Getty Images)
Sep 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Go to college, get a job, or join the military—those three choices have long been seen as the main paths to becoming a productive member of society. But a new report finds enlisting in the armed services is not an option for most young adults in America.

A full 71 percent of youths and young adults 17 to 24 do not qualify to serve in the military “due to problems with obesity, education, drug abuse, or crime.” That’s one of the main findings of the 2016 Citizen-Readiness Index, a report released Tuesday by the Washington, D.C.–based youth development nonprofit Council for a Strong America.

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The report crunched data from several sources, including Pew Research Center and the Pentagon, to determine whether young people “are workforce-ready, crime-free, and military-eligible.” At a time when about 30 percent of American kids weigh more than they should and roughly 30 percent of adults are obese, being out of shape has become the biggest obstacle to military enlistment.

“Obesity is one of the major issues we see and plays a role in 31 percent of disqualifications,” Kelli Bland, the chief of public affairs at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told TakePart. “If the obesity issue in America increases in the coming years, it could have a detrimental impact on our national security because we may not have enough young people willing and qualified to serve in the armed forces.”

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Other medical or physical problems disqualify another 30 percent of young adults from serving in the Army, as do issues with drug use.

“In addition to these challenges, we are finding that less than one in four of those who are qualified for service have a strong desire to serve,” Bland said.

The point of the report “isn’t to steer kids into a life of military service,” Amy Dawson Taggart, the national director of Mission: Readiness, a coalition of retired military leaders that is affiliated with the council, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Problems that affect the armed forces extend to the rest of America. The qualifications for joining the armed forces—having a high school diploma or a GED, being physically fit, and not having an arrest record—also represent the basics of being able to contribute positively to the community.

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“It begs the question, if you aren’t qualified to serve in the military, what else are you not qualified to do?” retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Mike Hall said in the report.

Youths in seven states—Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, and Tennessee—are least prepared to meet those criteria, according to the report.

“Retired admirals and generals believe that we all have a responsibility to help young people grow up to stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble so that they can succeed at whatever they choose in life, including a career in the military, if that’s what they wish. We want our kids to grow up with options,” Dawson Taggart wrote.

To ensure kids have more options, the report offers policy recommendations for the next Congress and commander-in-chief that reflect “what we’ve known for years: smart, targeted, early interventions can go a long way in preparing our most vulnerable children for success,” wrote Dawson Taggart. That includes investing in “high-quality early childhood education, voluntary parent coaching for first-time teen mothers, and getting junk food out of schools and physical activity back in schools.”

At the same time, states and school districts continue to cut budgets for education—and cutting or eliminating the U.S. Department of Education entirely has been proposed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, a move that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton opposes. Yet Dawson Taggart wrote that there is plenty of “broad, strong bipartisan support for initiatives that help young people get the right start in life.”

That support will be essential to ensuring that being able to join the military is an option for future generations.

“We are not under pressure to relax our enlistment standards, and in fact, we are actually focused on increasing the quality of our recruits next fiscal year. With a smaller Army, it is even more important that every individual is fully qualified to serve in the occupation they choose,” said Bland.

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