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Unfit to Serve: America’s Health as a Matter of National Security

September 10, 2013
Gary Oppenheimer

This past Labor Day weekend, my family and I made a long overdue visit to West Point – the Army’s military academy overlooking the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City.

Part college, part army base, the campus is stunningly beautiful. With both old architecture and new–made to look old–West Point has the look and feel of a world-class university (think Cambridge or Yale) and a fortress.

We took a walk around West Point taking in the rolling landscape, the barracks (no dorms in the Army), the chapels, the memorials as well as the college buildings themselves. At the start of our walk, every few minutes one or more cadets (not students) would jog past us, all wearing the same gray tee shirt, shorts and a lime green reflective belt so as to be more easily seen at night. More often than not, they’d make eye contact and say hello or otherwise acknowledge us as they passed by. Jogging several miles was not an excuse to lose their manners.

As we walked further along and got to the heart of where the cadets live, we saw a number of food-delivery cars making deliveries to the barracks area – not unlike you would expect to see at any university campus. We also saw an increasing number of cadets, some in full dress and some in their jogging outfits hanging around together or walking with friends.

Every man and woman in uniform we saw there appeared to be fit – not one overweight. You might expect that of cadets at a military academy more so than the typical college student in America who represents the typical American – some fit and others less so.

There are many reasons why people may not be fit, but for all too many it is food. For some, it is less than ideal dietary choices while for others, its less than ideal dietary opportunities. Of course genetics, exercise, and other factors come into play too but for the one out of six American families that rely on a food pantry, the lack of access to fresh food casts a pall on the future well-being of their children.

What does this have to do with our West Point visit?

As Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D. (ret.), Former US Assistant Surgeon General, underscores “obesity is a health, economic and national security threat to our country and world. We need to mobilize all sectors of society to address this growing public health problem.”

This past March, while at a White House convening with First Lady Michelle Obama, I learned that an increasing number of young people who apply for the military are being turned away because they are not fit for duty – enough so that this is increasingly becoming a national security issue. I also learned that a child growing up today has a 1 in 3 (and increasing) chance of becoming diabetic at some point in their life. As a result this may be the first generation of Americans who are not as healthy as or may not live as long as their parents.

According to a 2009 Pentagon study, 35% of Americans aged 17 to 24 were unfit for military service. What is most striking is that in 1987, the number was about 6% according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Young people growing up in a home where the access to healthy food may be limited–such as a home where a significant amount of the food available has come from a local food pantry–have a greater chance of health-related issues appearing in their future
When our own health is less than ideal we as individuals suffer the consequences. When our kid’s health is less than ideal, we all suffer the consequences – especially in the long-term health care costs the country will face.

And now it’s a matter of national security too.

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