Attrition: Fat Chance

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January 5, 2019: The U.S. Army, and the American military in general, have a growing problem with soldiers who are too overweight to stay in and a growing number of potential recruits (47 percent of men, 59 percent of women) who are too overweight to handle basic training and seem incapable of losing enough weight to qualify. Many solutions have been tried since the 1990s, as this is not a new problem, but one that has kept getting worse. The latest solution is the ACFT (Army Combat Fitness Test) which is based on combat experience since 2001 of all troops in combat zones. Most of those soldiers had support, not combat, jobs and the ACFT is mainly for them because the non-combat troops were initially the most unprepared for operating in a combat zone where ambushes, roadside bombs and mortar/rocket attacks on bases was more frequent than during earlier wars, even the 1965-72 Vietnam War.

The ACFT is a six-part test consisting of; Part 1 - three repetition maximum deadlift (adjusted for gender and age), Part 2 -standing power throw, Part 3 - hand-release push-ups, Part 4 - 250-meter sprint-drag-carry, Part 5 - leg tuck, Part 6 - 3,200 meter (two mile) run. The army has an ACFT website that goes into the how and why of each event. The reason for each event is explained along with what aspect of overall physical fitness each event concentrates on. The web sites shows equipment needed to train for the test and how the actual tests are evaluated. The site gets quite specific in how each preparatory exercise serves to get you in shape as well as how each of the six parts of the ACFT contributes to combat readiness. Those troops who have served in a combat zone don’t have to be convinced and for another decade or so there will be plenty of combat veterans around to assure the new troops that these tests could definitely save your life down-range (in a combat zone). It is also pointed out that troops able to pass ACFT will suffer fewer physical injuries in general, not just in a combat zone. The combat troops have long had stricter physical standards and more rigorous training. In fact, the army maintains separate basic and advanced training programs for recruits who have selected a combat job. It’s the other 90 percent of recruits and veterans who need ACFT the most.

In October 2018 the army began field tests of ACFT to determine what the failure rate might be and whether changes are needed for preparatory training or the ACFT itself. In October 2020 the ACFT becomes mandatory and those who cannot pass face dismissal from the army for lack of physical fitness. The army expects to lose some troops, as it has in the past when it imposed new physical fitness standards to deal with obvious physical shortcomings of many troops in a combat zone.

The ACFT is only addressing one reason why the number of Americans physically, morally and educationally qualified to join the military continues to shrink. The problem has been developing for over two decades and there appears no end in sight. Yet at the same time, the army has learned from recent (and past) combat experience that physical fitness is a matter of life or death in combat zones. So some policies will not change no matter how few eligible recruits there are.

There were dramatic examples of this in 2012 when the U.S. Army tightened its physical requirements for new recruits. That meant that male recruits could not have a body fat percentage higher than 24 percent (it used to be 26) and for females was 30 percent (it used to be 32). But once they are in they must reduce that to 18 percent for males and 26 percent for females. The army tightened the body fat rules in 2012 because it was reducing its personnel strength and more soldiers wanted to stay in. Thus the army needed fewer new recruits each year. Because of the high unemployment rate since 2008, more people were trying to join. To do that they had to be thinner or at least not obese. Body fat percentages greater than the new army standards are considered "fat" by the medical community. Moreover, most men with 24 percent (and women with 30 percent) body fat would appear chubby. Most soldiers, especially those in jobs requiring a lot of physical activity have closer to 15 percent body fat (22 percent for women). New male recruits with 24 percent body fat have six months to get it down to 18 percent and keep it there.

This emphasis on low body fat was because Americans have, since the 1990s, become very fat and out-of-shape. There are currently 34 million Americans of prime military age (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only 28 percent of them (9.5 million) are physically eligible for service. The ACFT addresses the need to have the right kind of physical strength needed to survive in a combat zone.

Each year the armed forces have to recruit about 150,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year recruiters have to convince about two percent of those eligible that they should join up in order to meet recruiting needs. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little, doesn't pay enough attention in school and often engages in illegal activity. You not only have to be physically fit enough to join, but you also have to be smart enough and have no criminal record.

The enormous growth in computer entertainment and a subsequent massive reduction in the amount of exercise teenage boys get is the major reason for physical fitness crisis. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. Over half (now nearly 60 percent) of potential recruits are not eligible because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, for decades the most common physical disqualifier has been being overweight. A decade ago about a third of the people of military age were considered obese and now it is about half. Many of these big folks are eager to join and are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist. Few return light enough to sign up. Motivation and self-discipline are important in the military, where making mistakes can be fatal. That especially true in combat, but only about ten percent of soldiers are in jobs that involve looking for a fight. The rest have support jobs, many of them involving going very important jobs for the troops doing the fighting. Mistakes here can get those guys killed. One reason the American army is a so much more effective force now that at any time in history is the screening of recruits and maintenance of those standards after the recruits are on the job.

During World War II the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.

The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the services, especially the army, had to change its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, in 2008, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks. In 2007 the additional basic training time was, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills were expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training was also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since. That effort was stalled between 2008 and 2016. But with the decline in exercise, and growth in obesity among teenagers, the army needed the extra week to get these recruits to look like soldiers and not out of shape video-gamers carrying real guns. Keeping them in shape, physically, after basic training proved easier than preserving the emphasis on military training. That’s a lesson the American military won’t forget as it has in the past. During World War II the army conducted numerous opinion surveys among troops both before and after combat. One thing that stood out was that troops who had been in combat wished they had had more physical conditioning during their months of preparations before going overseas into a combat zone. The army rectified the institutional memory problem (with the CALL program) in the 1980s but that did not change perceptions by politicians or potential recruits. Inaction has consequences. But that diligence with post-basic training does little to solve the problems continuing to worsen among the young people who want to join.

This is not just an American problem. All Western nations (including Japan and South Korea) have similar problems with recruiting and maintaining training standards after recruit training. Even China is having the problem because so many Chinese families have suddenly become affluent since the 1980s. The kids have more food, more video games and more are living in urban areas where you don’t have to walk everywhere as much or experience as much physical activity in general. This is not an easy problem to solve.

 


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