Allen B. West

Here’s my idea for trimming the fat from the Department of Defense…

I’m 55 years old, and if you recall, back in March of this year I had a pacemaker implanted in my chest due to a condition called “sick sinus syndrome.” My heart rate was abnormally low, dropping into the 20s at night, and my heart actually stopped five times for two to three seconds during a 24-hour Holter monitor test. Yep, there were tense moments as my diagnosis came early February, but the surgery could not occur until early March.

Thirty-six hours after surgery I traveled to Michigan to speak at Hillsdale College and for a private charter school event. And I can say it now, but that Saturday morning I got up and ran six miles. Of course I wasn’t supposed to, but just didn’t want to sit on my buttocks. It was a weird feeling to have the device in my upper left chest, but had to get used to it. Well, I still keep up a good PT regimen, doing three to six miles, six times a week, along with pushups, crunches, and pool laps.

Sometimes when I run, I sing ol’ Army cadence calls to myself. One of my favorites is:

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Up in the morning before the break of day.
I don’t like it no way,
Eat my breakfast too damn soon, then I’m hungry as hell by noon,
Went to the Mess Sergeant on my knees
Beggin’ Mess Daddy, Mess Daddy, feed me please,
Mess Sergeant said with a big ol’ grin,
That if you wanna be Airborne, ya gotta be thin.

Old habits die hard, but I truly believe one’s health is a personal responsibility. I know I’ll NEVER be able to run a 10:38 two-mile run like I did back as a young Lieutenant in Vicenza, Italy, but staying in shape is important.

And that leads to a very disconcerting article I read, which I wish to share with y’all.

As reported by Military Times, “The Pentagon in 2017 is expected to unveil a new force-wide policy governing body-fat standards, rules likely to change how the military defines and evaluates body composition, and determines who’s too fat to serve. 

While the Pentagon establishes minimum requirements, allowing each of the services to enforce stricter standards if they choose, the looming change comes as military data suggests obesity rates among troops are growing at an alarming rate.

Today, 7.8 percent of the military is clinically overweight. That’s about one in every 13 troops. That’s way up from 2001, when it was just 1.6 percent of the total force, or one in 60 troops, according to Defense Department data.

Obesity rates are highest among women, African Americans, Hispanics and older service members. Pentagon officials familiar with the policy review say it is focused on the use of body-mass index, or BMI, which fails to account for different body types.

BMI can signal that a bodybuilder is overweight because he or she has a lot of heavy muscle. Conversely, BMI can overlook out-of-shape personnel who are naturally tall and thin. Current policy requires service members to maintain body fat levels below a key threshold: 28 percent for men and 36 percent for women. If they fail, they must undergo a “tape test” to estimate their body fat percentage.  Critics have long argued that tape test is flawed. Top military leaders say that while details of the policy might change, underlying fitness standards should not.  

“If we do that, we have a potential liability on the battlefield,” Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this year. “The minute we lose that competitive advantage in combat because our enemies are training harder than we are, we’ll have more problems than we have right now.”

First of all, I’d best be careful lest I be castigated as racist and sexist if I say something about military obesity rates being highest among women, blacks, and Hispanics.

But the real question to be asked is, where do these troops serve? I find it hard to believe we have an obesity problem down in what we call “line” units — tactical deployment level units. I would surmise that most of these obesity issues emanate from higher headquarters units where daily, organized, unit fitness programs aren’t conducted, and maybe not even mandated. If that’s the case, we can add this to the recent discovery about $125 billion in civilian bureaucracy wasteful spending at the Pentagon. Yes, obesity in the military is a leadership issue, and if I’m 55, with a pacemaker, and still getting up at 0520 to do PT, what gives?

One of the things I began to recognize in my final years in the Army was that Soldiers coming to our line units were not in prime physical condition. The objective most times coming out of basic training and advanced individual training was for Soldiers to just pass the PT test.

You see, out in the “real” Army, doing the bare minimum wasn’t tolerated. It was about pushing to excel, especially in the realm of physical fitness. When I was a battalion commander in the 4th Infantry Division I would personally lead battalion PT once a month. The standard for our battalion run was four miles/36 minutes.

If you fell out of the battalion run, you had retraining — in other words, a do over — that day after duty, or Saturday morning — with me. Leaders set the example, something I learned very early in my military career when our battalion commander, then LTC Thomas “Nuke ’em” Needham led six-mile officer runs from our post at Caserma Ederle to Mount Berico and back…six miles. LTC Needham was a lean, mean, Airborne machine, and you did not want to have him beat you…if so you were transferred out of the battalion. We did six-mile ruck runs, in boots, with a 30-pound backpack. Now, I know what some are saying — that’s brutal and too tough on the body and brings about injuries. I take another route: it toughens you up, and combat is all about toughness and endurance. 

Almost 10 percent of our uniformed military is obese. That’s not a good stat. And we can talk about equipment readiness, but this is about personal, individual physical readiness.

And I’m quite sure many of you civilian fitness gurus are saying, 28 percent and 36 percent allowable body fat? Yep, you read that correctly.

Hmm, question, why is there a separate body fat allowable percentage between males and females? Doggone, I thought that the Obama administration had mandated all duty positions open to females in the military, including combat duty billets — so why separate physical standards? And 36 percent allowable body fat… I think we can all agree, that’s REALLY high. The issue isn’t about the Body Mass Index (BMI) test using the tape measurements. The issue is why we have allowed obesity to become an issue in our military in the first place.

This is a leadership issue — and cultural. The real problem is that, as with other things, we are conforming the military to civilian life. Simply put, if you’re a male uniformed member of our Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines and you cannot see your toes looking down, there’s a problem. And the remedy is simple: separation from the military if you’re not meeting the standard. This is also a health issue because obese and unhealthy troops will spend more time on sick call…and not in a deployable state of readiness. 

fat

And what upsets me the most is that the problem is worse in the Army. Maybe I need to lead four-mile runs for military personnel assigned to the Pentagon…and who’d want to get beat by a 56-year-old fella (my birthday is in February) with a pacemaker? If so, you can bet that separation papers would be forthcoming within a week.

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