Critical to Our National Security That Americans Stay Healthy

Think tank's new report looks bluntly at obesity issues in this country — and shares necessary fixes

Americans are known throughout the world for our innovation, diversity, and go-getter attitudes. Unfortunately, we are also known for our heavyset, unhealthy population and obesity epidemic.

The conservative think tank Mission: Readiness recently published a report, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” that addresses the need for healthy Americans to ensure national security.

Over 700 retired admirals and generals make up the minds behind Mission: Readiness. They called on their collective experience, along with data from the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and other entities, to write the report on this concerning aspect.

What do the data say? The report found that obesity disqualifies enough American youth for military service that it is starting to impact recruitment efforts.

“Obesity disqualifies 31 percent of youth from serving if they so choose,” it said. “These ineligibility rates are a major reason why the Army (the military’s largest branch) was not on track to meet its annual recruitment goals as of September 2018.”

The data for 2016 found that only 13 percent of youth, ages 17 to 24, would meet the minimum qualifications for military service, be able to serve, and pass the required Armed Forces Qualification Test. Data for 2017 showed that only 11 percent of youth, ages 16 to 24, would be interested in serving in the military. These numbers are particularly concerning as interest in military service is declining and recruitment targets are getting harder to meet.

Physical fitness remains a top priority in the military. “Excess weight puts recruits and service members at higher risk for injury,” the study said. Service members need to be able to meet the physically demanding nature of their jobs. In many cases, being unable to deal with physical stressors could mean an increased risk of injury or even death for a military member or their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines.

Senior leaders are weighing in on what can be done to keep the strength of our all-volunteer military force. Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led the Joint Special Operations Command and American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that “we must do more to prevent and address childhood obesity.” These top military leaders are looking beyond just what the DoD can do to maintain the physical condition of the military. They believe that to truly fix the problem, it must be a top priority for children in order to raise healthy adults.

Healthy habits start early. While the military is addressing obesity within its own ranks through new programs and initiatives, Mission: Readiness officials know that the mission begins much earlier. Parents and educators, especially those in early childhood settings, need to help children develop healthy habits.

Obesity rates among two-year-olds is 14 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That rate grows to 18 percent of those six to 11 years old and 21 percent of 12 to 19 years old.

In true military fashion, the report concluded with recommendations for next steps to combat the problem. Healthy meals rich in nutrients as well as physical activity are major contributors to a healthy lifestyle. Mission: Readiness included data and programs that showed how early care and education settings that serve young children can increase the numbers of fruits and vegetables served.

“Ongoing trends in obesity must be reversed before our national security is further compromised,” the report concluded. “Healthy eating and physical activity are crucial components to ensure that children grow up healthy, and that those who are willing to serve are prepared to meet the military’s eligibility requirements.”

“For almost a decade, the retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness have been sounding the alarm that obesity is affecting our national security by limiting the pool of eligible recruits for military service,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Samuel Ebbesen.

At a press event to promote the report’s findings, Mission: Readiness leaders continued to educate about the risk of obesity.

“For almost a decade, the retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness have been sounding the alarm that obesity is affecting our national security by limiting the pool of eligible recruits for military service,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Samuel Ebbesen told those gathered. “It is critical to our national security that those willing to serve are prepared to meet the standards for eligibility.”

Mission: Readiness is part of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America. Their purpose is to “champion evidence-based, bipartisan state and federal public policy solutions that are proven to prepare our youth to be citizen-ready and able to serve their nation in any way they choose.”

Related reports were released in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Data have continuously shown an obesity trend that, if left unaddressed, could compromise national security.

Katie Begley is an OpsLens contributor, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and a former surface warfare officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education and parenting subjects. This piece originally appeared in OpsLens.

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