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 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.”
The 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.