A few fit men: Healthy youth for healthy forces

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Article Social Justice War and Peace
We should be helping America’s young people really be all that they can be.

Despite the grim toll taken in what is becoming a war of attrition in Afghanistan, the Great Recession has helped U.S. armed services achieve record recruiting numbers in 2009. 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 per capita weight among middle-aged to senior citizens. But more worrisome weight-related health problems are growing among young Americans, including children.

Obesity and illnesses related to bad eating habits-such as diabetes-are becoming our greatest health care challenges and will likely weaken the nation literally and fiscally for decades. The gravity of that problem was brought home, oddly enough, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A Pentagon study reports that 35 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are unqualified for military service because of physical and medical issues. And, says 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, including medical or physical problems, illegal drug use, mental or behavioral issues, too many dependents, or a criminal record.

During World War II, 40 percent of the young men who reported to their draft boards for service were rated 4F, ineligible, owing to problems associated with malnutrition. That rejection rate came as a shock to federal bureaucrats, a stark testimony to the ravages of the Great Depression, but it was also a sociological alarm that set in motion decades of nutrition programs (beginning in 1946 with school lunches).

While the initial call to social action arose out of national security concerns-the United States needed a battle-ready force to enter the field-the effort to better nourish America's youth eventually contributed to the appreciation of nutrition as a fundamental human right.

Now another generation tells a different story, not of scarcity and hunger but of food abundance and political short-sightedness. Properly feeding minds and spirits is as least as important as filling bellies. However you feel about the strategic deployment of 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.

The Pentagon's eligibility crisis calls for a comprehensive review of food policies and nutrition standards and a much harder look at how food is marketed to children and stocked in our nation's schools.

A more critical look at how well American culture responds to a child's overall physical and mental health would also seem warranted. It's not exactly bending swords into plowshares, but drafting the Defense Department's readiness review into the service of the nation's next generation is one unequivocal good that can be extracted from our too war-ready culture.

As we ask young people to put their lives on the line in service to this nation, we fellow citizens must also do our part to serve them: by the example of personal deportment we set, by the policies we create to help them build healthy and fulfilling lives, and most importantly, by protecting them from strategies that capriciously put them in harm's way.

Shuffling priorities toward the goal of improving the lives of our young people does not mean, as in the past, merely guaranteeing enough youth who are fit to serve. It means developing a judicious and merciful understanding of the ends and means of war-making that is fit to serve these
young people.­

This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, page 39).

Image: Tom Wright