Mil Leaders: We're Still Too Fat to Fight

TERRE HAUTE -- Nuclear proliferation might pose one threat to national security, but so does the bodyweight of American children, and the latter problem needs to be addressed, officials claim.

In its report "Too Fat to Fight," a nonpartisan coalition of 300 retired senior military leaders warns Congress that at least 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are too heavy to meet basic enlistment standards. The group, Mission Readiness, estimates 75 percent of Americans that age are unqualified for service considering the combination of obesity, lack of a high school degree and criminal history.

And obesity, they state, is one of the biggest of the problems. Each of the estimated 212,800 Hoosier young people deemed too heavy for service would have to lose an average of 32 pounds just to be considered, according to the report.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Johnnie Wilson states in the report that, "Child obesity has become so serious in this country that military leaders are viewing the epidemic as a potential threat to our national security."

Meanwhile, health care and military professionals alike continue to battle the bulge, offering information and options applicable to all.

A growing problem

Tracy Arini, a Registered dietitian at Union Hospital, said a substantive number of her referrals are for obese children. The most extreme case she's seen locally involved a 197-pound, 5-year-old boy who required a tracheotomy as his body mass rendered him unable to breathe.

And while the report issued by Mission Readiness points much of the blame toward the availability of junk food in school vending machines and concession stands, Arini pointed out that for many local kids, the U.S.D.A.-sponsored school lunch is probably the best meal they'll get all day.

The 197-pound 5-year-old required intervention by Child Protective Services at his home. Likewise, most other obese children find their nutritional problems beginning there as well. Of the 16,000 students served by the Vigo County School Corporation, about 54 percent live in households qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches, she said, pointing out the impact socioeconomic factors play in nutrition.

"There's not a lot of cooking in the homes these days," she said.

Parents, she said, must be involved if child obesity is to be remedied. And this is complicated when many of the parents are themselves overweight. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32.8 percent of Vigo County adults were estimated to be obese in 2009. Clay County's adult population weighed in at 36 percent obese, while nearby Owen County was at 35.6 percent.

If parents don't eat healthy foods and exercise, it's tough to steer children in that direction once they become old enough to choose their own way. The "holy trifecta" of poor nutrition -- sugar, salt and fat -- has a powerful pull, she said.

"These foods tend to be addictive by nature," she remarking, comparing the drawing power of a burger and fries with fresh kale and spinach. "But just because it's edible doesn't mean it's food."

Meanwhile, one can of regular soda could contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar, all empty calories. As people weigh nutrition versus cost, the whole grains are often tossed for the refined, and convenience wins in the end. All this adds up to a growing epidemic of childhood obesity, one which is noticeably on the increase, she said.

Union Hospital offers outpatient services for obese children and adults, many of whom are covered by insurance plans, Arini said. In general, people need to consume more water and less sweetened drinks, avoid "junk food" and eat regular meals. Going hungry for long periods can lead one to over-consume later, she explained.

Awareness is also key, and many patients grossly underestimate their own body weight.

"A lot of people don't realize how heavy they are," Arini said, recalling some patients who thought they were nearly 100 pounds lighter than what they really were.

Maintaining a fighting weight

Per the report, many youth can still qualify for enlistment based on their body weight, and the military works hard to keep them in shape while they serve.

Maj. Frank Howard, executive officer of the 181st Intelligence Wing at Hulman Air Field, said the U.S. Air Force and Indiana Air National Guard are concerned about child obesity. Obviously, a smaller pool of applicants makes for a tougher recruitment process, but he pointed out the local unit is able to complete all of its missions and has been successful in helping members maintain fitness levels.

"Once you're in, the Air Force isn't as concerned about your weight, it's concerned about physical fitness," he said.

Height and weight standards for enlistment vary among the services, he said, explaining the numbers used by the Air Force. The standard maximum body fat percentage allowed for men under the age of 30 is 20 percent, with women the same age allowed up to 28 percent.

Candidates of either sex must fall within the same acceptable height and weight guidelines. A candidate 5 feet, 10 inches tall can weigh anywhere between 132 and 191 pounds, per Air Force guidelines. Those who fail to meet that criterion often don't apply, or are passed over by recruiters, he said, adding there's really no way to track the number of people who don't apply or who are turned away.

The reality is, body weight and fitness matter considering the work involved. Among its missions, the 181st provides 24-hour-a-day intelligence via video feeds to ground commanders overseas. The medical staff in its units are first responders who jump into incredibly challenging environments, and members of the elite Tactical Air Control Party teams conduct special operations which require peak physical ability.

Howard, who has served in both the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, recalled deployments to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where temperatures on the flight line exceeded 130 degrees.

"If you talk to any physical fitness expert, a better fit person handles stress and weather extremes better," he said. "In any combat arms, physical fitness is important."

And the mental stress of working with high-tech computer equipment in hostile environments is only worsened if they lack stamina. The reality is, the Air Force needs smart "jocks" who possess both the intellect and athleticism needed for high-tech missions on the move, he said.

Nationally, finding that combination will only become tougher if child obesity continues to rise and young people can't meet basic enlistment standards.

"Getting in is step one," he said.

Once in, Howard said the Air Force offers a robust array of fitness opportunities. The service even authorizes one hour a day, three days a week for exercise while on the clock. In addition to fitness facilities provided on the base, personal trainers are available for instruction and coaching, he said.

"The gym is always open," he pointed out, adding that the Air Force emphasizes personal accountability. It is the duty of personnel to maintain fitness standards, while the Air Force makes facilities and staff readily available.

Fitness standards vary based on age and sex, forming a matrix upon which personnel must score an acceptable number of points. A male under the age of 30 can score a perfect 10.0 in the category of muscle fitness by performing in excess of 67 push-ups in one minute, and in excess of 58 sit-ups in one minute. A perfect score of 60 points is achieved by the same person for running 1.5 miles in less than 9 minutes, 12 seconds. Body composition scores are based on waist measurement, Howard explained. To remain eligible, members must meet the minimum number required and achieve a composite score of 75 points.

The minimum number of push-ups for a male under 30 is 33 repetitions in one minute, 42 sit-ups in one minute and the 1.5 mile run in less than 13 minutes 36 seconds. An abdominal circumference of less than 39 inches is required, he said, explaining failure to meet any of the minimums negates high scores in other areas. The waistline matters.

Reaching goals

Michael Sutherby was at the Hulman Air Field Friday morning, ready to take the oath of a new airman. The 25-year-old Evansville resident said he was excited to get training under way, as he hopes to become a member of the Air Force's elite Tactical Air Control Party units.

Those units conduct special operations, Howard said, noting their training program exceeds 16 weeks and typically washes out high numbers of candidates.

Sutherby said he weighs 200 pounds, and at 6 feet, 1 inch is within the acceptable range of 144 to 208. Home-schooled, his family owns a tree service and he said much of his childhood was spent climbing and working outdoors. In addition to manual labor, he played basketball, baseball and competed in speed skating. Since deciding to try out for a tactical unit, he's been working even harder.

"I've been running every other day," he said.

Inside the base gym, Col. Donald Bonte, Commander of the 181st Intelligence Wing, watched the news on television while using the facility's elliptical machine. Surrounded by free weights and exercise machines, he said maintaining fitness levels is crucial.

"We owe it to the American public to maintain a fit fighting force," he said, pumping away on the machine.

The military never knows when it will be called upon to respond to a crisis, nor does it know what kind of environment it might be called upon to enter. Bonte, who will turn 56 in a couple weeks, added that being fit is also good for both the person and profession as life and war have something in common.

"It takes all the fun out of retirement if you get there and die," he joked.

In its report, Mission Readiness calls on Congress to increase school lunch funding while schools cut back on vending machines and the availability of junk food to children. Increased education about nutrition must be coupled with lifelong exercise habits, it states.

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