Generation 4F?

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The Great Recession has certainly helped U.S. armed services achieve recruiting goals this year, and after years of lowering minimum standards, the 2009 recruits are among the best educated and highest skilled in history. But Army and Marine recruitment drives are generating another and less welcome profile of America's youth. Call them Generation Unfit to Serve?

It should not surprise anyone that the nation has been experiencing a progressively worsening problem with its weight among older folks, certainly, but more distressingly among the young; obesity and illnesses like diabetes related to bad eating habits—eating too much overall and eating too much that is simply not healthy—are becoming the greatest challenge to the nation's health care services and will likely weaken the nation literally and fiscally for decades. Now U.S. armed services report that 35 percent, or more than one-third, of the roughly 31.2 million Americans aged 17 to 24 are unqualified for military service because of physical and medical issues. "And, said Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon’s director of accessions, 'the major component of this is obesity. We have an obesity crisis in the country. There’s no question about it.''

Unfortunately that's not the worst news. According to an independent report, "Mission Readiness," data indicates that altogether as much as 75 percent of the nation’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible for service for a variety of reasons. That means that only 4.7 million of that 31.2 million 17- to 24-year-olds are eligible to enlist. Here's how the Pentagon breaks down the ineligibility problem:

• Medical/physical problems, 35 percent.
• Illegal drug use, 18 percent.
• Mental Category V (the lowest 10 percent of the population), 9 percent.
• Too many dependents under age 18, 6 percent.
• Criminal record, 5 percent.

However you feel about the strategic deployment of America's young people in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, this depressing eligibility analysis should offer a call to action on improving the health and education of our young people so they will be prepared for their future—and ours—however they choose to pursue it.

During World War II the 40 percent 4F rate of young men drafted into the army owing to problems associated with malnutrition was a stark testimony to the ravages of the Great Depression, but it was also an alarm that set in motion decades of nutrition programs (beginning in 1946 with school lunch) that arose out of national security concerns but contributed to the eventual appreciation of basic nutrition as a fundamental human right.

Now a different great generation tells a different story, that food abundance and short-sighted food policy can create its own problems and that properly feeding minds and spirits is as least as important as filling bellies. As we ask these young people to put their lives on the line in service to this nation, we older fellow citizens must also do our part to serve them, by the example of personal deportment we set and by the policies we create to help them build healthy and fulflling lives. We must all be fit to serve each other.