The waiver program allows overweight enlistees to get in shape after
they sign up.
By Gordon Lubold | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
January 5, 2009
Washington - The waistlines of America's youth are expanding,
shrinking the pool of those eligible to join the US military. But an
Army program is giving overweight enlistees a second chance – and
helping the military with its own expansion.
The recently-introduced waiver program allows enlistees who don't
qualify for the military because of their weight a chance to shape up
after joining. So far, the program has helped the Army make its
recruiting goals in what remains a tight recruiting market.
If the economic recession worsens, it could help the military's
recruiting efforts as people seek stable employment. That could
reduce the need for waiver programs. However, nutritionists don't see
the trend of overweight Americans disappearing any time soon,
ensuring the continuance of such programs in recruiting an
"We support any service who comes up with a scientifically defensible
way of expanding the market [of recruits]," says Curtis Gilroy,
director of accessions policy for the Pentagon.
Such waivers had been studied for years but the program wasn't
implemented until fiscal 2007, when it admitted about 1,500
individuals through the program (just a small slice of about 80,000
recruits). Recruits must pass a special battery of tests, including a
"step test," and do a number of push-ups to demonstrate their
physical abilities. If they pass and are enlisted, they have a year
to comply with the Army's physical requirements, measured by "body
mass index," a formula that estimates body fat based on weight and height.
The Army's weight waiver program rests largely on a distinction
between individuals who are overweight or obese and those who are
physically fit but whose "body mass index," or BMI, doesn't meet Army
"The point is to get the football-player kinda kids. It's not to get
the couch-potato kids," says Beth Asch, a senior economist at the
Rand Corporation who studies military recruiting.
The Army program is a "sensible move," says Ms. Asch, but to remain
effective it must have oversight.
"There can be a temptation, not necessarily at the commanding level
but at the ground level with the recruiter, who would want to slip in
a kid who is overweight and has no business being in the Army," she
says. "There needs to be monitoring."
So far, the percentage of those in the program who don't get into
shape – and are then discharged from the Army – is low among both men
and women. It roughly mirrors the attrition rates of those who don't
take the special test, according to data provided by Douglas Smith of
Army Recruiting Command.
The Army has struggled the most with recruiting. Although it has met
its active-duty goals in recent years, it has had to issue other
waivers and let in more high school dropouts in order to do so.
At the same time, the military is expanding through next year. The
Marine Corps, which is not using the weight waiver, is growing to
202,000 and the Army will reach its "end-strength" goal of 547,000 this year.
Many experts would like to see the military grow even larger to meet demands.
The obesity challenge
Excess weight is the chief reason many individuals can't enlist.
It's no secret that today's youths gobble up french fries and suck
down Big Gulps. At the same time, fewer are getting exercise. The
percentage of young adults considered obese – with a BMI greater than
30 – has grown sharply in recently years.
Ten years ago, there were a handful of states across the country
where about 25 percent of the population ages 18 to 34 were
considered obese. Today, there are 26 such states.
"We know that is even going to increase because the [Centers for
Disease Control] says the numbers are going to go up," says the
Pentagon's Mr. Gilroy.
It's a big change from 50 years ago, when there was widespread fear
that soldiers were "undernourished," says Linda Van Horn, professor
of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School
Today, Americans live in an age of super-sized proportions. According
to the National Institutes of Health, the average-sized bagel 20
years ago was three inches across and had 140 calories. Today's
bagels average twice the size and have about 350 calories.
And more Americans are eating fast food, which is cheap, plentiful –
and generally unhealthy. "There is no question that America is eating
out," says Ms. Van Horn.