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Army ramps up weight-related discharges

Nov. 6, 2012 - 07:57AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 6, 2012 - 07:57AM  |  
The Army in September discharged more than 450 soldiers who failed to meet weight standards - more than the number of people discharged for similar cause in the entire previous year, said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler.
The Army in September discharged more than 450 soldiers who failed to meet weight standards - more than the number of people discharged for similar cause in the entire previous year, said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler. ()
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Army brass sounded the warning more than a year ago: Trim the fat, or you'll be cut when we trim the force.

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Army brass sounded the warning more than a year ago: Trim the fat, or you'll be cut when we trim the force.

Those cuts have begun.

The service in September discharged more than 450 soldiers who failed to meet weight standards — more than the number of people discharged for similar cause in the entire previous year, said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler.

And that is just the beginning.

Soldiers attending Professional Military Education must now pass the Army Physical Fitness Test and meet height/weight standards. Those who fail will be given a second chance within seven to 24 days.

Soldiers who fail a second time will be booted from the course and ineligible for re-enlistment or promotion.

Chandler also has turned up the heat for command sergeants major and first sergeants. He has shot out a warning order that unit fitness programs must be in place and adhered to. Every soldier must be tested as required, and failures handled appropriately.

Chandler also has been a strong supporter of restarting the master fitness instructor program in the ranks.

This is not a matter of the Army picking on fat bodies. The service must cut 80,000 soldiers over the next five years, and officials are adamant that the Army retain only soldiers with the greatest potential.

But the rank and file has mixed opinions on plans to cut overweight soldiers. For many soldiers, particularly weightlifters and those who played football, the weight standards are a target of controversy.

While many have said they are tired of overweight soldiers looking like bags of trash covered in camouflage, others share frustrations of unfit soldiers unable to pull their weight on the job — or on the battlefield.

But for every voice that applauds the change, there is another who tells of a great soldier who meets fitness standards but will likely get the boot because he can't shed those few extra pounds.

Some are disadvantaged by body shape, and some women are plagued by changes that occur after childbirth.

Capt. Kyle Borne called the height/weight program "incredibly flawed."

"It is an archaic system that does not make even moderately accurate assessments of a person's health," Borne said. "Simply comparing a measurement of the neck with the abdomen does not generate an accurate result. Typically measurements vary from [noncommissioned officer] to NCO because they are not properly trained in how to use the draconian measuring system."

Soldiers have long contested whether the dreaded "tape test" is the best way to measure body fat. Women, bodybuilders and people with naturally thin necks or wide hips say the current model is not fair.

Males are measured at the abdomen (at the level of the belly button) and neck below the Adam's apple. Women's necks are measured at the same spot, but the abdomen is measured at the point of minimum circumference. They also have a hip measurement taken at the point where their buttocks protrude the most.

The Army, like its sister services, reviewed the tape test in 2011. The findings were consistent: There are better ways to determine body fat, but they are neither practical nor financially feasible when testing a large number of people.

Chandler has said better training is needed for those who administer the test to ensure accuracy.

While the Army stuck with the tape test, it made little change to guidelines governing body-fat percentage. The Defense Department sets limits and allows each service to establish its own guidelines. The Army's body-fat allowance is the most lenient. In fact, the Army allows a level of body fat the American Health Association labels as "obese."

This year, the service cut allowable limits by 2 percentage points for soldiers under age 21.

Borne feels such measures still fall short.

"I am 71 inches tall, weigh 186 pounds and am 28 years old," the captain said in correspondence sent to Army Times from Gardez, Afghanistan. "Under the Army system I require taping. The last time I taped at 22 percent. I am an amateur body builder and don't have much body fat. I do, however, have a skinny neck thanks to my father and a wide body from abdominal exercises. These combine to form the bogus percent."

Borne said Electromagnetic Impedance records his body fat at 11 percent — half of the Army's estimation.

"Every [physical training] test I am afraid that I will tape over," he said. "It has happened one time in my career. I had the highest APFT of all the lieutenants in our battalion but broke tape. My battalion commander directed my battery commander to flag me for being outside of standard. ... Luckily my BC decided it was totally insane and just tabled it."

Soldiers have gone through this before. That same focus was in force in the decade following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Nearly 20,000 soldiers were discharged from 1992 to 2001 for failing to meet weight standards, according to Army data. In comparison, 6,054 overweight soldiers were discharged from 2001 through 2010.

Force fitness had not increased, but operations in Afghanistan and Iraq had increased, and the Army was keeping every experienced soldier it could.

As operations diminish, the Army is recommitting itself to the profession of arms that cannot receive full attention in a time of war. This effort calls for soldiers who are fit to fight and project a professional appearance.

As such, weight-related discharges jumped to 968 in 2011 — nearly as many as the four previous years combined. Another 1,625 have been discharged in the first 10 months of 2012.

Soldiers who exceed height/weight standards undergo tape measurements to determine body-fat percentage. A soldier who fails to meet those standards is unable to extend or re-enlist unless that soldier has a temporary or permanent physical medical condition that precludes weight loss, or is pregnant. The soldier also is flagged for all favorable personnel actions. He is not promotable, cannot be assigned to leadership positions and is not authorized to attend professional military schools.

Such marks will be career-killers in an Army that looks to retain the best and brightest.

It is not clear how many soldiers will be affected by the new rules, but the pickings are anything but slim. More than one-third of soldiers do not meet height/weight standards, according to a 2009 report, "Military Services Fitness Database: Development of a Computerized Physical Fitness and Weight Management Database for the U.S. Army."

Blowback

Maj. Tim Crowe said weight loss and fitness are individual responsibilities, but the stress of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan has had an adverse effect on the ability to meet those standards.

"This is not to excuse not meeting the standard," the Fort Huachuca, Ariz., soldier said. "The military knows that similar upticks for suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are, in part, caused by this stress. I think it is likely that the same deployment stress has contributed to the military's weight gain and other behavior choices which are unhealthy."

Crowe pointed to the fact that the Defense Department in 2009 reported that the percentage of overweight service members had more than doubled, though the rate had remained flat the previous five years. In the same period, the number of soldiers who enrolled in alcohol abuse treatment programs increased more than 50 percent, as did smoking rates among veterans returning from war zones.

"In an effort to curb suicides, the military has worked hard to eliminate the stigma and the negative administrative actions against troops who seek mental health treatment," Crowe said. "Yet the military solution to obesity is as unenlightened as the mental health policy was a few years ago. Overweight troops face punitive administrative measures, including getting kicked out of the military, as ‘incentives' to get thin. These incentives are similar to how the military treats petty criminals and troublemakers: Punish them and get rid of them if they don't reform."

The major said troops should be expected to meet the standard but said behavioral changes take time and require support.

"It's not fair to push troops out, especially those who have served in our nation's wars, without giving them the best help possible to get fit," he said.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dan Nightengale said he doesn't have a problem with the policy — as long as it starts at the top.

"There are plenty of CSMs, colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors, sergeants major and master sergeants that should be the first to go," he said. "Gotta set the example, right? If you have overweight leaders that stay in, but lower enlisted are booted, the double standard is perpetuated like it has been for decades."

Spc. Adam Kerr is in that category. Having served four years, Kerr is confident his days are numbered.

"I'm more or less known for two things: being the strongest person around, and also being the biggest," said the 6-foot-3-inch, 275-pounder. "By no means am I fat, although I am big. I've always been given grief to ‘get smaller' or ‘lose weight or we won't send you to school.'"

Kerr said such talk ceased when he deployed to Afghanistan this past year — and became a bodyguard to his commander. But he blew out his back seven months later, and his weight is an issue again.

"I'm almost constantly reminded of being overweight, mostly by my CSM, who wants me out of the Army because of it," said Kerr, who is undergoing a medical evaluation board. "I'm seriously injured; I can barely get out of bed in the morning without my wife's help, let alone go to the gym; but still consistently get my balls busted about my weight."

Kerr admitted he has put on weight but said that is due partly to his medical condition. Running and working out are too painful, he said. He even tried yoga but couldn't pull it off.

"At this point I'm not attempting to stay in," he said. "I'll go out quietly with a medical discharge and go on with my life doing whatever limited activity I can do. One thing is for sure, [I am] broke and overweight, [but] if you ask any one of my peers or immediate supervisors, they'll all say the same thing: There's no one else they'd rather have in their corner than me."

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