State military leaders call obesity rates a national security threat

SPRINGFIELD —- Current and former leaders of the Illinois Air National Guard said Tuesday the obesity rate in the United States has become a national security threat, and they urged state lawmakers to invest more in early childhood education programs that focus on nutrition, health and physical activity.

Speaking at the Springfield school district's Early Learning Center, Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, and three retired generals pointed to a recent study entitled “Unhealthy and Unprepared in Illinois.” It found 70 percent of young adults aged 17 to 24 in Illinois cannot qualify for military service, including 31 percent who would be disqualified due to obesity.

Those numbers are almost identical to national averages, and the report says it's a major reason why the U.S. Army fell short of its recruiting goals in 2018.

“As a commander who over the years has really served at all different levels within the organization, it's surprising to see how challenging recruiting has become over the years,” Neely said. “I was not shocked by it because we've seen this in the recruiting numbers, but it was very nice to have the report to then really back up the data that we're seeing through our experiences.”

Neely was joined at the news conference by retired Gens. Mark Rabin, William Cabetto and Jay Sheedy, all of the Illinois Air National Guard. They are among roughly 750 current or retired generals and admirals who make up a national group, Mission: Readiness, an operation of the Council for a Strong America. Rabin said the purpose of Mission: Readiness is, “to promote physical fitness amongst children so that they grow up into productive and healthy human beings.”

“We know that starting at a young age being physically fit is important to qualify not only just for military service but for life in general,” Rabin said. “You have to be physically fit to be mentally sharp and able to do your job. And we who have been in the military, of course, have seen so many situations where physical fitness is a requirement, not only just to get into the service, but to perform your duties and be mentally sharp.”

The U.S. military has long advocated for educational programs that focus on health and fitness at an early age. In fact, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, calling it “a measure of national security.” During that war, many young men were rejected for military service because, having grown up during the Great Depression, they were underweight.

But now the military is facing the opposite problem and it has former leaders like Sheedy concerned.

“The fact is, we will not have a sufficient pool of talented recruits to serve in our military in the future unless we support early learning, healthy eating and physical activity that these young people need,” he said.

Charlena Jackson, principal at the Early Learning Center in Springfield, said healthy eating and physical activity are a major focus of that school's program. The state-funded center serves a little more than 600 at-risk children, ages 3 to 5, who live in the city.

“We have seen the enormous positive impact that pre-K can have in our community,” she said. “We hope that our pre-K program, and programs like it all over the state, continue to serve even more children who need help at such a critical phase in their early learning and healthy development.”

Tim Carpenter, Illinois state director of the Mission: Readiness program, said he believes it's important for state lawmakers to recognize the value to national security of early childhood education.

“Ongoing trends in obesity must be reversed before our national security is further compromised,” he said. “So we're calling on state legislators to continue to prioritize investments that promote nutrition and encourage physical activity from an early age, and those continued investments will help us to achieve our goal of ensuring more of our youngest learners can enter kindergarten and start life healthy and better prepared for success in whatever they may choose when they grow up.”

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