A third of American youth are ineligible for military service today because of unhealthy lifestyles and rising obesity rates, according to a new study. And the Army wants those interested in enlisting to know that unfit soldiers do not make good battle buddies in intense environments.
The services are making it a priority to promote "healthy lifestyles at an early age," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Samuel Ebbesen during a panel Wednesday at the annual Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C. "It's crucial … to our national security that those willing to serve must be prepared to meet the standards of eligibility."
He recalled his time as a young training officer at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he worked as an assistant to a Master Sgt. Bell, a World War II and Korean War veteran.
"Fat people don't make good soldiers," Ebbesen recalled Bell saying. "They get injured more often. They take longer to heal when they get hurt. And they lack stamina, which is critical when you fight in a war. A weak link in the chain, and they get themselves or others hurt or killed!"
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He described Bell's outlook: "I can't do anything about bringing them in, but I sure as hell can do something while they're here, to make them what we need for them to be -- fit soldiers."
Ebbesen, who was involved in curating the fitness report, said Bell's perspective was important to him because "I've used those views to [shape] the way I led in every unit to which I was assigned from that day forward. And it continues to be relevant today."
Roughly 31 percent of youth are disqualified from military service due to obesity, according to a report published Wednesday.
The report, "Unhealthy and Unprepared," was co-authored by Mission: Readiness, a group of retired admirals and generals who advocate for children, and the Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan non-profit promoting solutions for the next generation.
The study also found that 71 percent of those between the ages of 17 and 24 do not qualify for service under the military's standards.
It's why the Army missed its recruiting goal for the year, service leaders said.
"It was a challenging year in 2018," said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command. The service missed its recruiting goal of 70,000 by 6,500 soldiers.
The silver lining, he said, is that "70,000 is the most we've been able to recruit since 2010. But still, we missed our mission."
The three regions where young people are at the biggest disadvantage are Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia, according to the report. Those areas have seen ineligibility percentages reach 75 to 78 percent, it said.
"That should scare you," said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
During a Defense Writers' Group breakfast Wednesday, Neller pointed out that it's not just the Army struggling to find recruits.
"Sixty-two percent of the Marine Corps is 25 years old or less," Neller said. "I'm not their dad, but I'm kind of like their dad, so I've got 125,000 25-year-olds or younger out there every day doing what they do. To their credit, and to the credit of the institution ... we're getting good folks. But we need help."
"Human capital" cannot be replicated, he said, adding that those who want to serve shouldn't be broadsided by treatable medical conditions like obesity.
Muth agreed that healthy, active lifestyles and nutrition must start at an early age to promote better trends.
"Our concern is … what happens when that percentage [who] do qualify potentially goes down?" he said.
He continued, "It's not just the fact that they can't pass some of the tests that we have, but if they come [into the Army] and they start to have obesity challenges, it's the injuries that occur … and if you end up … in a deployed environment under stress. … Being able to handle it comes back to physical fitness.
"We have to educate them to the benefits of military service," Muth said, adding that he sees eagerness in "Gen Z" applicants -- those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s -- "who want to give back, who want to be join something that's bigger than themselves."
"It starts with a dialogue. … We have to make everybody understand the impact to future generations, to the U.S. Army, [and] -- to a greater [extent] -- to national security," he said.
-- Gina Harkins contributed to this story.