As harsh as it might sound, too many Texas youth are too fat and too frail to come to our nation's defense if needed, a nonprofit national security organization says.
Mission: Readiness, a group of retired military leaders, recently issued a report titled, “Too Fat, Frail, and Out-of-Breath to Fight," that says 73 percent of young adults in Texas cannot serve in the military because they are overweight and generally unhealthy.
That's higher than the national average of 71 percent of young adults ineligible to serve.
"In the event of a national emergency, if we have to mobilize millions of young people today, we would have a crisis on our hands because a lot of those young people are not fit to join the military service," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Joe E. Ramirez Jr., who is also commandant of Texas A&M University's Corps of Cadets and a Mission: Readiness member. "Each year, it seems to get worse and worse in terms of overall readiness and fitness of our young people."
"In World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we mobilized literally millions of young people to join the military," he said. "We needed to rapidly mobilize and grow our military and prepare them for war. If we had to do that today, we would find it much more difficult to find that population of young people who are physically fit to join."
The study, which was completed in fall 2015, also shows that asthma among youth is a growing problem for recruiters, rendering nearly 7 percent of young Texans ineligible for military service. Obesity and lack of exercise can contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems.
"A young person who grows up overweight or obese with unhealthy eating habits is subject to all kinds of ailments like asthma or diabetes and they injure much easier than others," Ramirez said. "Those are the types of things that disqualify them from entering military service."
Ramirez said the four military branches have different minimum physical requirements.
"There are subtle nuances," he said. "For example, the Army will have a two-mile run for time but the Marine Corps has a three-mile run while the Air Force and the Navy have mile-and-a-half runs for time. What's important is, every service has a minimal physical fitness requirement to join that service."
To serve your country, you need to be in peak physical condition. Each branch has stringent rules regarding weight, body fat and health status. But the physical demands don't stop with signing up: Recruits who want to make it through boot camp and infantry training must also survive increasingly tough physical-fitness challenges.
The nonpartisan organization of more than 550 retired generals, admirals and other senior retired leaders propose three solutions to Texas cities and school districts: build neighborhoods that encourage physical activity by including walking and biking trails, prioritize physical education in schools and continue with healthier school meals.
"We are advocating on a statewide level, on a legislative level, for better PE programs and healthy meals at schools, which was put in at a federal level in 2012, so 100 percent of Texas schools are serving healthy meals," said Joseph McMahan, the Texas state director of Mission: Readiness. "We also advocate for safer roads and routes to encourage kids to walk and bike more."
According to the study, only 13 percent of students walk or bike to school. Also troubling is that in an average week, only 30 percent of Texas teens get the recommended hour of daily physical activity.
"It's a huge obstacle, not just in Texas but in other states as well," McMahan said. "If you're not an athlete and you're not involved in sports, by the time you're in seventh and eighth grade, you're kind of done."
McMahan said there is still a lot of work to be done.
"It took people many, many years to realize how terrible smoking is and that's where we are with the subject of obesity," he said. "More people are familiar with it now. Luckily, sodas and other sugar drinks are out of the schools, but it also starts at home and getting the parents to realize that it has to start there. We are making headway, but it's slow."
Michael Morales, a senior Naval Science instructor at Socorro High School in El Paso, Texas, said fitness guidelines and standards have always been a part of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp, but they have not been strictly followed.
"This is my fourth year here," the 27-year Navy veteran said. "The (physical training) they used to do is they would meet with the gym classes and they either sat in the bleachers or they played basketball or football. There was no cardiovascular, no 20-minute heart-rate-up workouts or any of that stuff."
Morales said he lectures his classes on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
"I told them that we have to do what I was taught to do in the Navy because although we are not recruiting for the military — and I don't care if they join the military or not — I just want them to be healthy. I want them to see their grandkids one day," he said.
He partly blames the lack of exercise on technology.
"The problem is their iPhones, their iPads and TV," Morales said. "It's all the games they play that takes them away from physical activity."
The NJROTC students are required to run, perform situps and pushups.
"We change it up every week," Morales said. "Last week, we did planks and leg lifts. Some kids are even doing them on their own now. One of them said, 'Sir, last night I did three minutes of planks and leg lifts.' I asked him if he felt it and he said, 'My whole body was shaking.' "
The report concludes that Texas must provide children with healthy school meals and more opportunities for physical activity in school and in the community to ensure that those who want to join the military are fit enough to do so.
"What we have to do is get out there and educate the public about what it takes to raise physically fit young men and women who can be eligible for military service," Ramirez added. "I'm not saying that over time we couldn't get them there, but in many cases today, we don't have the luxury to take months or years to get young people in shape."
Ramirez said one of the messages they are trying to send is it's more than just the school's responsibility: It's a personal responsibility.
"If you're in ninth or 10th grade, you have to be willing to take it on as personal responsibility to keep yourself in shape, healthy and fit to be able to do the things you want to do," he said. "Even in college we tell our cadets, 'It's one thing to pass the PT test, it's another thing to adopt a healthy lifestyle.' That's the difficult part. You can say, 'OK I passed the PT test and I'm done for six months.' That's not true. This is a lifestyle change for everybody."