The U.S. Army is struggling to find physically fit recruits and it’s a threat to national security, according to a report from researchers at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, released Wednesday.
The researchers found the issue is particularly evident in 11 Southern states–––Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas––where recruits were found to be “significantly less fit and/or more likely to become injured than recruits from other U.S. states.”
The South has some of the highest obesity rates in the country. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama all have adult obesity rates about 35 percent, placing them among the top 5 most obese states in the U.S. (West Virginia has the highest rate of adult obesity, at 37.7 percent), according to the State of Obesity, an annual report from non-profit Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The study concluded these 11 Southern states are “disproportionately burdensome for military readiness and national security” for two important reasons: First, high obesity rates mean the candidate pool for the military is dwindling, as prospects can’t meet the physical requirements. According to the new report, “It’s estimated that 27 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are too overweight to qualify for the military service.” Second, individuals with poor physical fitness levels prior to being recruited have an increased risk for injury during basic combat training. Each recruit lost due to such injuries, or attrition, cost the Department of Defense roughly $31,000 in 2005, according to the report.
The issue of obesity in the U.S. has been causing major problems for the U.S. military for years. In 2010, upon entering basic training, 47 percent of males and 59 percent of females failed the Army’s entry-level physical fitness test, according to the report. To solve this problem, the study recommends looking beyond the military itself and recognizing the positive impact government policies aimed at improving public health could have on the military.
Department of Defense data from 2016 found roughly 7.8 percent of the military––roughly one in every 13 troops––is clinically overweight, according to Military Times. This endangers U.S. troops, according to current and former military officers.
In September 2016, Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell said, “If I have to climb up to the top of a mountain in Nuristan, in Afghanistan, and if I have someone who is classified as clinically obese, they are potentially going to be a liability for me on that patrol.” Troxell is the senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, making him the top enlisted adviser to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams, expressed similar views in October 2017, according to Military.com, stating, “It gets extremely dangerous when you can’t keep up with the rest of the pack. You are putting your fellow comrades at greater risk.”
The U.S. Army said last year it hopes to bring in 80,000 new recruits in 2018. But with such high obesity rate across the country––roughly one-third of U.S. adults (36.5 percent) have obesity, according to the CDC––this goal could prove decidedly difficult. There are 33.4 million Americans ages 17 to 24, the military’s prime demographic for recruitment, according to data from U.S. Army Recruiting Command reported by Army Times in October 2017. But only 9.7 million (29 percent) are qualified to join the Army due to an array of disqualifying factors, including poor physical fitness and obesity.
With that said, the U.S. Army claimed to have met its recruiting goals in 2017, bringing in 69,000 recruits. But it did so, in part, by lowering some if its standards and issuing waivers for physical and mental health. Over 8,000 recruits received waivers in 2017, up from 6,700 in 2016, Army data showed. In this sense, it seems the U.S. military might be more concerned with quantity over quality, which leaves open questions about its combat readiness. Newsweek reached out to the Pentagon for a comment on this, but did not hear back by the time of publication.