Americans Increasingly Too Weak, Not Just Too Fat, To Serve

Rapidly increasing numbers of Army recruits have failed to meet entry-level fitness standards. This trend occurred even as fewer and fewer Americans met the standards required to become recruits. Last October, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost warned,

“the next existential threat that we have, maybe a generation down the line is … the inability to provide qualified people, volunteers to serve in our military.”

Maj. Gen. Frost had good reason for concern:

“71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 cannot join the military, due primarily to inadequate education, physical unfitness, record of serious crime, or drug abuse.”

But what of the few who are qualified—that is, the 29 percent who are not too fat, poorly educated, or involved with crime and drugs? Their health and fitness levels are in continuous decline as well.

Consider this graph, obtained by CrossFit through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request:

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(BCT stands for Basic Combat Training. These soldiers are failing to meet even the watered-down version of the Army’s fitness test. The normal version requires 2 minutes each of push-ups and sit-ups, and a 2-mile run.)

Nearly half of female soldiers were unable to perform three push-ups, 17 sit-ups, and run a mile faster than 10:30. And over ⅓ of males failed to perform 13 push-ups, 17 sit-ups, and run a mile faster than 8:30.

Now, the 1-1-1 is not a comprehensive fitness test. Passing it does not ensure fitness for combat. Failing, however, does ensure the opposite: that the soldier lacks the most basic levels of fitness and strength.

Below is a table from the Military Medicine Journal containing 2010 data for the same test and the same population. It looks like things kept getting worse, with over half of women (54 percent) and 40 percent of men failing.

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We have not found more recent fitness failure rates for recruits. This is probably because “the Army eventually discontinued 1-1-1 testing and automatic assignment to the FTU/FAP (remedial fitness units).”

One might hope the 2000-2010 data is skewed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which required large numbers of new recruits and perhaps lower standards. These wars have wound down compared to 2010, so maybe recruit standards have improved since? It would be pretty to think so. Yet in 2017, the Army had to again lower its entrance standards to meet recruiting targets, accepting increasing numbers of “marginally qualified,” low-intelligence recruits.

The Army resorted to recruiting tactics normally reserved for large-scale wartime mobilization to fill its ranks, but without the large-scale war. And 1st Sgt. Robert V. Craft Jr. reported in 2015,

“Over the last decade or so … we have begun to accept substandard (fitness) performance in order to make numbers for missions … 40 percent of Soldiers are overweight, and … there are as many as 45,000 Soldiers, who are not deployable today.”

Nor are the 60 percent who are non-overweight soldiers in the clear. In fact, thin unfit troops are a greater liability for the Army than fat unfit ones. As the Military Medicine piece cited above reported:

“Recruits with both low aerobic fitness and low BMI (Body Mass Index) appear to be at greatest risk (for injury). Low BMI could indicate lesser muscle or bone mass; underweight individuals may lack the strength required for strenuous tasks including standard load bearing.”

The few Americans not too fat to serve are increasingly too weak to serve.

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