Two years after scandal-free former General David Petraeus lifted an eight-month ban on fast-food restaurants on military bases in Afghanistan (Burger King, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut were popular options), the Washington Post is now reporting that obesity is a leading cause of ineligibility for potential army volunteers and current military personnel. Over 1600 soldiers were kicked out of the Army in the first ten months of 2012 alone, or 16 times the amount expelled in 2007.
"A healthy and fit force is essential to national security," said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "Our service members must be physically prepared to deploy on a moment's notice anywhere on the globe to extremely austere and demanding conditions."
The overweight soldier epidemic isn't a new phenomenon; between 1998 and 2010, the number of overweight or obese military personnel more than tripled, and in 2010, approximately 1 in 5 troops (or 86,136) were diagnosed as overweight or obese.
And in 2009, Lt. General Mark Hertline, who was assigned the duty of revamping the Army's fitness programs, found that a staggering 75% of the civilians hoping to volunteer were physically ineligible to join, with obesity being the leading cause.
"Of the 25 percent that could join, what we found was 65 percent could not pass the [physical training] test on the first day," he said in a recent speech. "Young people joining our service could not run, jump, tumble or roll - the kind of things you would expect soldiers to do if you're in combat."
Of course, the Army is much less picky when it isn't trying to cut its budget (they're hoping to reduce active members from 570,000 to 490,000 by 2017) or fighting two escalating wars.
"During a war period, when we were ramping up, the physical standards didn't have a lot of teeth because we needed bodies to go overseas, to fill platoons and brigades," said Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and fitness expert who has designed workout routines for service members and law enforcement personnel struggling to meet workplace fitness standards. "During a period of drawdown, everything starts getting teeth, and that's kind of where we are again."
The Post does note that some soldiers were kicked out after gaining weight related to injuries (one cited a knee injury) or depression medication, both of which are no doubt legitimate factors. That said, we still blame Taco Bell.