A serious problem
Current military officials agree that the nation's obesity epidemic has created a serious problem, currently and for the next generation of soldiers. They say the military also is starting to address the issue, with efforts such as improving nutrition for current service members and by trying to help military families promote healthy eating and exercise habits with their children.
"If we really need the service now and of the future to be more physically fit and healthy, we certainly find that we can engage as a country ... how to address strategies of healthy living," said Public Health Service Capt. Kimberly Elenberg, program manager for population health at the Defense Health Agency.
The effort comes amid proposals to reduce the number of U.S. troops significantly following lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as military operations become ever-more technologically advanced. Despite those trends, experts say it's still going to be just as important to have fit, able soldiers in a generation to come.
"There's nothing about war that is becoming fundamentally less physically demanding, for at least half the people on the battlefield," said Michael O'Hanlon, director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
O'Hanlon said that's because the military may not be able to avoid messy, on-the-ground conflicts in countries where there are massive humanitarian violations or other lawlessness.
Even if their military duties don't require on-the-ground combat, Elenberg said, troops need to be in good shape. Nurses must be able to carry a large load of equipment to help the wounded. Service members on ships need to be able to nimbly climb vertical ladders from deck to deck. And personnel on submarines need to be fit enough to stay alert for hours on end.
Youngman said many civilians also don't realize that the soldiers of today and tomorrow are expected to be more prepared in other ways. Gone are the days when high school dropouts could show up and expect the military to whip them into shape. The military now says many potential candidates are rejected because they don't have a high school diploma or meet basic literacy requirements.