The Army is facing a weighty new challenge: would-be soldiers who arrive at basic training so out of shape that they suffer alarming numbers of stress fractures and other injuries.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who oversees basic training for the Army, said the nation's obesity epidemic has forced the military to turn away a growing number of enlistees because they were too overweight to fight.
But he said that even many recruits who are in good enough shape to be accepted into the 10-week course are unable to complete it because their poor diet and lack of regular fitness quickly results in a variety of training-related maladies.
"We have seen a significant increase in injuries," particularly to the hips of would-be soldiers, Hertling said during a breakfast with reporters Wednesday. "It's tougher than we've ever experienced before."
Kelly Schloesser, a spokeswoman for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, said that the overall physical fitness of incoming recruits has been steadily worsening. In 2000, 4 percent of males and 12 percent of females were unable to pass a "1-1-1" test, which requires participants to complete one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups and a one-mile run. By 2006, 22 percent of males and 40 percent of females were failing the same test.
Schloesser also noted that "increased body weight and poor conditioning" were leading to more injuries during basic training itself. In 1998, a total of nine femoral neck-stress fractures -- a serious hip injury -- were reported at one of the Army's training sites. By 2008, there were 30 males and 40 females who suffered that injury at the base.
The military is a reflection of broader American society, and the nation's growing obesity problem is posing significant challenges for the armed forces.
Earlier this year, a group of retired generals and admirals called "Mission: Readiness" released a report which noted that 27 percent of Americans aged 17-24, or roughly 9 million men and women, were too fat to be accepted into the military.
"Being overweight is now by far the leading medical reason for rejection," said the report, entitled "Too Fat to Fight."
"Between 1995 and 2008, the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physicals each year because they were overweight rose nearly 70 percent," the report said.
On Tuesday, Mission:Readiness urged Congress to pass the pending child nutrition bill, which is aimed at reducing child obesity.
Hertling, who is himself tall and lean, has worked to find creative ways of slimming down incoming Army recruits. Basic training now includes more yoga and Pilates, as well as exercises inspired by CrossFit, the popular conditioning regimen.
At Fort Jackson, S.C., one of the military's main training posts, the Army has begun serving more milk, vegetables and baked items at its dining halls. Low-fat dishes are marked in green to encourage new recruits to eat something healthier than a hamburger or piece of pizza.
The general and other top officers staff are experimenting with methods of teaching basic soldiering to enlistees.
Hertling said a new Army pilot program will distribute free iPhones and other smartphones to a battalion's worth of recruits -- roughly 1,000 people -- to see if the devices help them learn and retain critical skills like first aid.
Enlistees and active-duty soldiers can also download new iPhone apps containing reference works like the popular "Soldier's Blue Book," as well as military medical manuals and physical fitness guides.
Many of the programs include the text of the handbooks, but also incorporate audio recordings, video files and still pictures.
"That's how these young kids learn," Hertling said.
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.