Nov 3rd, 2009
By: Andrea Stone
WASHINGTON (Nov. 3) -- Are America's youth too fat, dumb or dishonest to defend the nation against its enemies?
The latest Army statistics show a stunning 70 percent of military-age youth are ineligible to join the military because they are overweight, can't pass entrance exams, have dropped out of high school or had run-ins with the law.
So many young people between the prime recruiting ages of 17 and 24 cannot meet minimum standards that a group of retired military leaders is calling for more investment in early childhood education to combat the insidious effects of junk food and inadequate education.
"We've never had this problem of young people being obese like we have today," said Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He calls the rising number of youth unfit for duty a matter of national security. "We should be concerned about how this will impact this overstretched Army and its ability to recruit."
Shalikashvili is among dozens of retired generals, admirals and civilian Pentagon officials who have banded together as Mission Readiness: Military Leaders for Kids. The group, which includes former NATO commander and presidential candidate Wesley Clark, will appear with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the National Press Club on Thursday to urge immediate action to reduce dropout rates and improve the physical and moral fitness of the nation's youth.
They will cite research that shows quality early childhood education raises graduation rates by up to 44 percent and reduces the odds of being arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
Douglas Smith of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command said 2008 data shows about three in 10 youths have an initial "barrier to enlistment."
Most aren't insurmountable. "If you're overweight, we tell you to come back when you've lost the weight. If you don't score well on the armed forces aptitude test, we suggest you study and take it again," he said.
Between 2004 and 2008, the Army more than doubled the number of "conduct" waivers it granted to would-be soldiers with criminal or misdemeanor records. The loosened standards proved necessary in a time of war and amid a booming economy that forced military recruiters to work overtime to fill the ranks.
The new warnings about a generation of couch potatoes comes just weeks after the Pentagon announced its best recruiting year since the all-volunteer force began in 1974. The economic meltdown and rising unemployment, combined with bigger military bonuses and benefits, enticed hundreds of thousands to enlist despite the inevitability most would be sent to war.
The plethora of would-be recruits allowed the military services to be choosier after years of taking in more high school dropouts and those needing extra physical training to meet weight requirements.
Recruiting may have gotten easier, but "the good times don't stay forever," warned David Segal, a University of Maryland military sociologist. When the economy recovers and young people are able to get jobs or can afford to go to college, the military will be faced with the same out-of-shape, ill-prepared pool of recruits as before.
"Recruiting will get tough again," he said. "The trend line is clear: The youth population is getting less healthy."