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Woerner: SC Bill Gives Youth, Military a Fighting Chance

Frederick_WoernerTHE STATE
OPINION COLUMN
BY FRED F. WOERNER
MAY 23, 2013

COLUMBIA, SC — As a retired general, I am deeply concerned about the high rate of obesity and low levels of physical activity in children and young adults in our state, which threaten not only their health but our national security as well.

The Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of all Americans age 17-24 are unable to join the military because they are physically unfit, too poorly educated or have a criminal record.

In fact, obesity is now the leading medical disqualifier from military service, with one in four young Americans too heavy to serve. Between 2006 and 2011, the military reported that 62,000 recruits failed their entrance physicals due solely to their weight.

Obesity also impacts those who have already enlisted. In one year, the military discharged more than 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts were up due to weight problems. And the Defense Department spends more than $1 billion a year on obesity-related medical costs through TRICARE, the military’s health-insurance system.

In South Carolina, nearly half of young adults are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria, which are broader than the military’s. This is a 35 percent increase in less than two decades.

While the weight and health of the American people represent a challenge for the military, it is not the military’s problem alone. We must take initiatives in the civilian sector to solve this American challenge.

It takes years, not months, to build a strong, healthy body, and the foundation for good fitness is laid in childhood and young adulthood. Good nutrition starts at home, and parents play the central role. But with kids consuming up to half of their daily calories while at school and out of sight of their parents, nutrition experts and the Institute of Medicine have joined parents in saying that schools should be a focal point in the nation’s effort to combat childhood obesity.

In its recent report “Still Too Fat to Fight,” Mission: Readiness documented the hundreds of billions of calories of junk food that children consume at school every year, and called for supporting the U.S. Department of Agriculture in updating decades-old standards for foods sold in school vending machines and cafeteria snack lines. As we work to get unhealthy foods out of schools, we also should work to get more opportunities for physical activity back in. By age 15, fully 70 percent of students are not participating in the recommended hour per day of moderate to vigorous exercise. And nearly 80 percent of high school seniors do not have physical education daily.

Surveys show parents overwhelmingly support schools providing opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating. The General Assembly can help deliver what both parents and military leaders would like to see.

The Healthy Students Act, S.599, will encourage more physical activity in our middle and high schools and ensure that our state adopts the most up-to-date food guidelines to enable children to make healthy choices during the hours they spend at school. It also provides for an accurate data collection system on childhood obesity in our state.

I hope our Legislature will pass S.599 and give our children a fighting chance to grow up strong and healthy. The bottom line is that the armed services must have a sufficient pool of fit young adults to draw from in order to field enough recruits with the qualifications needed to staff a 21st century military. Getting junk food out of our schools and physical activity back in are critical to making sure America’s child obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.

Gen. Woerner retired to Gilbert after commanding the U.S. Southern Command; contact him via dcarrier@missionreadiness.org.