SACO – With Maine’s unemployment rate at 8 percent, military service may seem like an attractive career option for many young adults, but there is one catch: Most don’t qualify.

As a former Army general, I was shocked to read the recent “Mission: Readiness” report stating that 75 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to join the military, if that were to be their career choice.

According to the report, there are three major barriers that disqualify many young adults — inadequate education, criminality and lack of physical fitness.

The numbers are alarming. One out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma. One in 10 young adults has at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor, and at least 27 percent, or 9 million young Americans, are too overweight to join the military.

Not only are these disqualifying conditions adversely affecting national security by eroding our military readiness, they are a sad commentary on young America’s ability to succeed and prosper in all walks of life.

Being overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why young Americans cannot join the military. Over the last 30 years, child obesity rates have tripled. One study found that 80 percent of children who were overweight at ages 10-15 were obese at age 25.

Here in Maine, 41.2 percent of youths from ages 18 to 24 are overweight or obese. In addition to hindering our military preparedness, obesity also costs the American people billions in medical expenses every year.

From the mid-1990s to 2000, the state of Maine spent $375 million per year on obesity-related medical expenses. This data is 10 years old — Maine’s current expenditures are surely much higher today.

What can we do to address the problem? One way is to improve the quality of food and beverages served in our schools. The school environment is critical for shaping the eating and exercise habits of our youth.

Research has found that as much as 40 percent of a child’s daily calorie intake occurs at school. Properly managed, the school environment can be an effective tool to reduce child obesity in America.

Ironically, the school lunch program was originally authorized in 1946 due in part to concerns about national security. At the time, malnutrition was a serious problem, and many young Americans were too underweight to qualify for military service. Today, obesity is a much greater threat.

The White House has proposed additional resources for a robust child nutrition reauthorization package that would reduce child obesity and improve the diets of children. Current proposals in the House and Senate include provisions that will raise the quality of all foods and beverages served in schools by requiring the secretary of agriculture to establish new nutrition standards that are consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Mission: Readiness” strongly supports these provisions and urges Congress to enact reauthorization legislation immediately.

applying increased nutritional standards to all foods sold on school grounds, expanding access to healthier meals, and supporting schools in implementing proven programs that educate children and their families about healthy eating and exercise, we can get junk food and high-calorie beverages out of schools and out of our children’s daily diets.

Recent research provides strong evidence that receiving school meals can help low-income children maintain a healthy weight.

Maine is fortunate that our congressional delegation members are strong advocates for children’s health and well-being. It is my hope that Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud will work toward swift enactment of child nutrition reauthorization legislation.

Maine’s children cannot afford to wait any longer. We must act now to confront the problem of child obesity and its threat to our nation’s future.


– Special to the Press Herald