It’s well known at this point that just under 30 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 ― the prime age to join the Army ― aren’t eligible to join.

But beyond that, almost a third of those who sit down with a recruiter to take the first steps are immediately disqualified.

“Out of all the reasons that we have future soldiers disqualify, the largest – 31 percent ― is obesity,” Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, said Wednesday at AUSA’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

A freshly published study, “Unhealthy and Unprepared” concludes that America’s rising numbers of overweight youth are going to have real impacts on the military’s ability to maintain effectiveness.

“We’ve got to make sure that message gets out, because our concern is what happens when that percentage that qualify … potentially goes down?” Muth said. “Or if the obesity, if that starts to go up.”

The study was undertaken by researchers with Mission: Readiness, an organization of more than 700 retired senior military leaders. One solution, they found, was institutionalized fitness and nutrition programs in schools, to ensure that kids grow up with healthy habits.

Researchers found that of the 29 percent of young Americans who have a high school diploma, no criminal record and no chronic medical issues, just 17 percent would be qualified and available for active duty, and 13 percent would qualify, be available, and achieve a satisfactory score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

“These numbers are particularly concerning because as the recruitable population has declined, so has interest in serving in the military,” the study found.

Service members at the dining facility Fort McCoy, Wis. Experts say healthy eating choices have to start young if the Army is going to be able to find enough recruits who meet weight requirements. (Scott T. Sturkol/Army)
Service members at the dining facility Fort McCoy, Wis. Experts say healthy eating choices have to start young if the Army is going to be able to find enough recruits who meet weight requirements. (Scott T. Sturkol/Army)

In 2016, 13 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds were interested in joining the military, and that number dropped 2 percent in 2017.

And for recruits who are overweight but not so much so that they can’t enlist altogether, there are risks after they have joined and are getting in shape during training.

The obesity issue is particularly stark in the South, from which the Army draws a large number of its recruits. The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, found that recruits in 10 Southern states had lower levels of physical fitness and were 22 percent to 28 percent more likely to be injured during basic training than their peers from other areas of the country, according to Mission: Readiness.

‘Weak links’

Further, a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that “active duty soldiers with obesity were 33 percent more likely to suffer musculoskeletal injury, contributing to the more than 3.6 million injuries that occurred among active duty service members between 2008 and 2017.”

Musculoskeletal injuries and stress fractures have also been the leading cause of medical evacuations during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, above and beyond other injuries.

As of 2015, 7.8 percent of active duty service members were considered overweight by their height and weight, up 73 percent from 2011, according to the report.

“[The Defense Department] spends $1.5 billion a year on obesity-related health care for active duty service members and veterans and their family members,” while losing 650,000 days of work a year for active duty troops because of obesity-related health issues, said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr.

The Army expects to see positive results from implementing the Occupational Physical Assessment Test to evaluate potential recruits before they join up, then following up with the Army Combat Fitness Test through their careers, as part of a holistic program that provides dietitians, physical therapists and other support staff at the unit level.

One retired three-star put the issue in harsher terms.

“You know, lieutenant, fat people don’t make good soldiers,” said retired Lt. Gen. Sam Ebbessen, recalling the words of an advanced individual training instructor master sergeant he worked for at Fort Dix, New Jersey. “They’re a weak link in the chain, and they get themselves and others killed.”

The answer, researches say, is an early childhood approach to healthy diet and exercise. There are promising developments from fitness programs and new nutritional standards in public schools, according to the study.

Since the National School Lunch Program updated its standards in 2010, fruit consumption among children under it has gone up 16 percent, while vegetable eating is up 23 percent, according to the Agriculture Department.

“Parents and educators can teach healthy eating and exercise habits, while state and federal policymakers must continue to prioritize programs that promote nutrition and encourage physical activity from an early age,” the study concluded.