Retired military personnel might seem unlikely public health proponents, but many who have served our country recognize the importance of being physically prepared to enlist.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a press conference in Colorado Springs regarding the role of obesity in medical disqualification from military service. The press conference was organized by Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization comprised of hundreds of retired admirals and generals calling for smart investments in America’s children—including full funding of early childhood educational programs, supporting families in ways that improve parenting skills and reduce child abuse, and improving child nutrition services. It was really encouraging to see our nation’s retired senior military leaders focusing on such critical national security issues.
The press conference showcased a new Colorado-specific report that highlighted statewide data on the unhealthy weights, respiratory problems, and musculoskeletal problems that contribute to 70 percent of Colorado’s young adults being unable to qualify for military service. In addition to providing information about the extent of the problem, Mission: Readiness discussed solutions to strengthening the next generation. Those solutions include recommendations to:
1) Build physical activity back into communities
2) Build physical activity into the school day
3) Maintain the national nutrition standards and refuse to retreat on healthier school meals
Colorado Springs was a fitting location for the press conference, being home to both Army and Air Force bases, the Air Force Academy, and a strong military culture and community. Leaders from both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard spoke about the need for smart public policy that incentivizes healthy eating, fit lifestyles, and safe routes for youth to walk and bike to school. They referenced policy advancements in Wisconsin, where obesity is declining faster than anywhere in the US. Since I am interested in understanding how statewide system reform can start to reverse the unhealthy trends of our nation, I made a mental note to research how that state has committed to both school nutrition and physical education programming.
The Generals and Admiral also talked about how after September 11, 2001, the military saw a surge in young Americans wishing to enlist in the armed forces. I thought about how years ago, I taught at a Florence Crittenton School in Charleston, SC. All of my students were pregnant and parenting teens, mostly from underserved, high poverty communities. When I talked with them about their hopes and plans for the future, many of them were adamant about military service. They saw it as an opportunity to build skills, be a part of a strong community, and most importantly, as a path for an economically stable future for themselves and their children. Many of them saw it as the only way out of the high-poverty environment where they currently felt trapped and limited. I lost touch with those students, but I hope that they were, at a minimum, able to qualify for the service in which they placed so much hope and value.
Considering 70 percent of Colorado’s young adults do not meet the eligibility requirements due to poor education, being physically unfit, or having a criminal record, it’s clear that comprehensive policy solutions are needed.