The obesity epidemic is posing a threat to national security.

Military officials report that obesity has become the leading cause of ineligibility when recruiting people into the armed forces.

Over the past decade, the number of military personnel classified as obese or overweight has dramatically tripled.

In 2010, 86,186 military personnel were clinically diagnosed as obese according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

Because of the issue, military officials are reassessing its current training programs and pressuring commanders to sift through soldiers to identify who is and is not fit to fight.

“A healthy and fit force is essential to national security, “said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “Our service members must be physically prepared to deploy on a moment’s notice anywhere on the globe to extremely austere and demanding conditions.”

This year alone, the military has kicked out 1,625 soldiers for being out of shape, which is 15 times the number of discharged soldiers dismissed for that reason in 2007.

Army commanders are being instructed to show no mercy while weeding out those who are unfit. This has become a common method used to cut soldiers since the Army is being forced to reduce the number of troops by ten thousand in the next couple of years.

This method was also used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“During a war period, when we were ramping up, the physical standards didn’t have a lot of teeth because we needed bodies to go overseas, to fill platoons and brigades,” said Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and fitness expert who has organized training programs for soldiers classified as unfit. “During a period of drawdown, everything starts getting teeth, and that’s kind of where we are again.”

The army dismissed over 3,000 soldiers shortly after Desert Storm ended, which was the highest number of troops dismissed since 1984. However, the method was suspended once the Iraq operation became apparent.  During the Iraq war, 112 soldiers were cut for being overweight.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said he saw the effects of the strict fitness test first-hand when he had to classify 57 percent of individuals as overweight during the recruitment process.

“Of the 25 percent that could join, what we found was 65 percent could not pass the [physical training] test on the first day,” said Hertling. “Young people joining our service could not run, jump, tumble, or roll–the kind of things you would expect soldiers to do if you’re in combat.”

During the millennial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military officials begin to operate under a more lenient system in accepting recruits who would be considered overweight under normal conditions. They also turned a blind eye to those who had criminal records.

Fitness standards for smaller military sectors such as the Marines, Navy and Air Force were not provided. Unlike the Army, they are not being pressured to reduce their forces.

The higher fitness standards have many soldiers calling the actual fitness test into question. The two –part test involves an endurance examination including sits-up, push-ups and a short run. For the second part of the test, potential soldiers have their weight and height measured which is correlated to their age.

Some muscular-built soldiers may be surprise to find out that they may not pass the test despite their build.

Staff Sgt. Ammiel Banayat said he was initially over the limit during his first test weighing more than 160 pounds at five feet five inches tall. In order to pass, he had to undergo a body-fat index test.

“The first time it happened, I was petrified,” said Banayat, an Arizona National Guardsman. “Even though I still passed the test, just the fact that I didn’t pass the height and weight test was terrifying.”

Smith believes the weight struggle for soldiers and potential soldiers is likely due to the current culture that is more sedentary and accustomed to eating larger food portions.  He believes many soldiers become overweight after succumbing to an injury during combat.

Some soldiers and their families are outraged by the extreme fitness assessments finding that it is putting them out of a job even when they are injured in the name of freedom.

“My son fought for this country and has a wife and 3 young children, the youngest a month old and they are now homeless,” wrote an Army mom on a blog whose son was kicked out for being overweight.

(Photo: AP)

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