Here's a disturbing statistic: 71 percent of American youths today don't qualify for military service because they're too fat, don't have a high school diploma, have felony convictions, or have behavioral issues such as ADHD.
And that's before you even get to the issue of large tattoos, which disqualify many more young people due to the armed services' standard of maintaining a professional-looking military.
The problem was detailed in a front page article in The Wall Street Journal last weekend. Major Gen. Allen Batschelet, commanding General of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command told the newspaper that only about 1 percent of American youths ages 17 to 24 are both "eligible (to serve) and inclined to have a conversation with us." He added, "The quality of people willing to serve has been declining rapidly."
Experts told the WSJ that seniors graduating from high school this year face the longest odds of qualifying for military service since the draft was abolished in 1973. It adds up to a tall task for military recruiters, who typically must find 180,000 men and women each year for active duty service and another 110,000 for National Guard units.
Obesity is listed as the top impediment preventing youths from being accepted into the military. Not far behind is the lack of education attainment. The problems are so profound that they have led to the formation of a non-profit group called Readiness that pushes for better early education and nutrition in schools.
"We're trying to make decision-makers see this as a national security matter," retired Major Gen. Allen Youngman told the WSJ. He said that in the past "a drill sergeant could literally run the weight off a soldier as part of the regular training program," but now, "we have young people showing up at the recruiter's office who want to serve but are 50 or more pounds overweight."
He said about one-fourth of high school graduates also cannot pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures basic math and reading proficiency. "They aren't qualified to join the military in any capacity, not just the high-tech jobs," Youngman said.
It does paint a disturbing portrait. On the obesity front, we've never been big fans of the nanny state. We have no problem with schools trying to improve the nutritional value of the meals they serve and we certainly endorse greater emphasis on physical education in schools. But if anyone thinks it's up to the schools to solve the nation's obesity problem they are kidding themselves.
The epidemic in youth obesity is a cultural problem that is rooted in the home. Parents, not schools, are the only ones who can fix it, whether that means turning off the TV, unplugging the video games and chasing the kids outside every now and then or refusing to allow kids to grow up on a lunch diet of milk shakes and cheese fries. This problem starts in the home and if there's ever going to be a solution, that will have to start in the home too.
Similarly, the basic skills problem has roots in the home, at least to the extent there are expectations about schoolwork and an interest by parents to help to see that it is done and done properly.
As for tattoos, the military may have to give ground on that one. We're not fans of them, but (thanks again to parents) they are ubiquitous, particularly among urban youth. The military currently forbids tattoos on the face, neck and fingers, and allows no more than four below the elbows and knees, which must be small. We're hard pressed to see the wisdom in the military passing up recruits who resemble the average baseball player if they can otherwise spell, add and make it over the obstacle course.
Recruiters are correct however when they say these problems of fitness and educational unpreparedness are a national security issue. They are the unfortunate hallmarks of a culture gone soft, and the long-term consequences to America's youth ultimately go far beyond just not being able to qualify for the military.