A Veterans Day appeal: Help fight youth obesity

On Veterans Day, our nation honors our soldiers past and present. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these men and women who have selflessly served our country. Thanks to their strong hearts, minds, and bodies, as well as their personal resiliency, American democracy is protected. For that, we are immensely grateful.

As retired generals, we are also extremely grateful for the opportunities a career in the military provided us. Having worked with thousands of dedicated servicemen and -women over the decades, we're struck by the mental and physical aptitude that military service requires. Sadly, we are concerned that too many of our young adults are not going to have the opportunities that we had.

In fact, 70 percent of young Illinoisans - ages 17-24 - cannot even qualify for military service, primarily because of obesity. In FY2018, for the first time, the Army did not meet its recruiting goal. This is why we are involved in Mission: Readiness, a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization made up of retired military leaders who speak up for research-supported investments in children and youth, to help protect national security.

It is no secret that obesity starts early in life. A new Mission: Readiness report, Unhealthy and Unprepared in Illinois, found that the rate of obesity among 2-year-olds is 14 percent. And those with weight problems between the ages of 6 and 8 are 10 times more likely to grow up to be obese. Adolescents who are overweight have a 70 percent chance of being overweight or obese in adulthood. This could very well prevent them from choosing any future they may like, including the military.

Fortunately, investments in early childhood settings can help combat obesity and better prepare Illinois' children for a bright future in successful careers, education or military service. While parents are at work, most of our young children are in some form of non-parental care. Our Mission: Readiness report found that providing young children in early childhood programs with nutritious snacks and regular, age-appropriate physical activity can really make a difference in helping curb obesity, as can limiting screen time. Promoting healthy habits in our young children is absolutely crucial to setting kids on the right track.

In order to strengthen obesity prevention and promote healthy lifestyles from an early age, Illinois policymakers should continue expanding support for Illinois' pre-K and birth-to-3 programs, as well as child care assistance and voluntary home visiting services for the parents of at-risk infants and toddlers. These are truly wise investments in promoting healthy eating and physical activity from an early age.

Thank you to our veterans who have served. We appreciate your sacrifice, and the rigorous standards of service you have worked to meet. We further hope that by investing in children's well-being early on, we can help ensure more Americans are able to honor and follow your example.

James M. Milano is a retired U.S. Army major general from Geneva. James Schroeder, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general from Geneva.

General James Schroeder
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