Morale: Food and Drugs More Dangerous Than Combat

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May 26, 2006: Food and drugs are a major cause of losses in the American armed forces. More troops are lost to these two causes each year, than to combat. The war on terror took on a different meaning for many troops after 2002, as the U.S. military cracked down on overweight personnel. In 2003, over 3,000 troops were "involuntarily separated" for not getting their weight down to acceptable levels. A smaller number gets tossed for failing regular drug tests. The new war on fat was hardest on new recruits, and the 90 percent of personnel who are not actually holding combat jobs. Most of those in uniform do what are basically civilian jobs, but in a military setting. That often means doing it overseas, where you are basically confined to base, with no access to alcohol or contact with the locals. Smoking is discouraged, but there is plenty of food available. In addition to regular drug tests, each year, every soldiers gets weighed. If they are over the limit for their age, height and gender, they get watched, and warned, until they either lose enough weight, or get thrown out of the armed forces. Worse, even more, otherwise excellent recruits, are not allowed to enlist because they are overweight. Recruiters help these recruits try to lose weight, and many succeed and are allowed to enlist. But many more fail in their weight loss methods.

Currently about 20 percent of potential males recruits, and 40 percent of females, are too overweight to enlist. Many of these lose enough weight to get in, but then tend to gain lots of weight during their first year (about 18 pounds for female troops) in response to the stresses of being in a new environment. Prospective troops get advice and exercise classes from recruiters. Once you are in, there are also programs to help you keep your weight down. For troops who are persistently overweight, there are mandatory programs like "Weigh to Stay". This one involves attending classes and meeting with diet and exercise specialists. With the large number of reservists called up for the war, the weight crackdown got turned on them full force. To that end, a web site version of the "Weigh to Stay" classes was put together for reservists.

The emphasis on weight control is connected with improving troop health in general, and the ability to do your job in a combat zone. Those that are overweight have more accidents, get sick more often, and lack needed mobility and endurance when they find themselves in a combat situation. The overweight problem is relatively new, even though Americans have been getting larger, and heavier, for over a century. Today's male soldiers weigh 37 pounds more than their 1869s (American Civil War) counterparts. Part of that can be accounted by today's soldiers being three inches taller, but some of the increase is fat, from too much food and not enough exercise.

 


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