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New threat to U.S. national security prompts generals to join First Lady Michelle Obama's fight against fat

April 26, 2010 |  8:27 am

First Lady Michelle Obama flexes her muscles as she exercises with schoolchildren at River Terrace School in Washington DC April 21, 2010 by Getty Images

Somehow the Ticket missed this. Distracted by speculation about President Obama's choices for Supreme Court, preoccupied by the sparring between Democrats and Republicans over financial regulatory reform, gagging over the fascism of Arizona's new immigration law, we failed to notice that some of the nation's top generals had issued a new report on national security.

Unlike most such reports that sit gathering dust unread, this one is gripping.

In a report called "Too Fat to Fight," a nonprofit, bipartisan group of 130 retired admirals, generals and other senior officers is warning that 27% of young Americans ages 17 to 24 are....

... unfit for military service because they are overweight. Since 2005, the military has turned away 48,000 young Americans who wanted to serve. And the officers say that 75% of young Americans who want to serve are sent home because they have no high school diploma, a criminal record or are chronically obese.

Now, the Mission: Readiness group is lobbying Congress for a ban on junk food and soft drinks in schools, and better education on eating and exercise.

“While we are meeting our recruitment targets today, those of us who have served in command roles are worried about the trends we see," said retired Rear Adm. Richard Barnett Jr. "Our national security in the year 2030 is absolutely dependent on reversing the alarming rates of child obesity.”

Even former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John M. Shalikashvili is joining the fray, noting, "Investing in our children through early education is not a Republican issue or Democratic issue. It’s a plain common sense issue critical to our national security."

The report comes against a backdrop of political pressure around a new childhood nutrition bill. With First Lady Michelle Obama leading a charge against childhood obesity called "Let's Move," the generals want the new bill to eliminate junk food and high-calorie beverages out of schools, increase child nutrition programs by $1 billion, upgrade the quality of food served in schools and provide research-based strategies to guide parents and children toward healthier eating and exercise habits.

The officers say their concern is nothing new. “In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act as a matter of national security,” said Amy Dawson Taggart, national director for the Mission: Readiness group. “Back then young people were undernourished, and now they are poorly nourished. Too many kids are carrying too many pounds, and improving school nutrition is an important place to start. This isn’t about looking good in a uniform, it’s about being healthy and fit to do the work of the nation.”

The Pentagon says its concern is also not about recruitment goals -- which they are meeting. But on the ground, recruits who want to serve are sweating off pounds and recruiting officers have turned into personal trainers.

Ticket may be late to the story, but it strikes us that U.S. enemies could save a lot of money by stopping production on terrorist weapons of mass destruction and just send junk food.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama flexes her muscles as she exercises with schoolchildren at River Terrace School in Washington last week. Credit: Getty Images

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