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Why Can't Hawaii Kids Join The Military?



They do it for the college money. They do it for the glory. They even do it because they don’t know what else do to. For all kinds of reasons, young people join the military.

But maybe not Hawaii’s young people.

Two recent reports, released separately by different groups, say Uncle Sam won’t take many of Hawaii’s 18-to-24-year-olds because they are too fat or can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the entrance test for all military services.

That’s bad news in a down economy, when interest in military service is up. “In this economy there’s more of a propensity to enlist for family stability. But of the applicants that come in off the street, I’d say about only one of 10 are able to enlist,” says Maj. Logan Kerschner, commander of the U.S. Army’s Honolulu Recruiting Company. “Most of it is the ASVAB and the weight standards.”

The irony isn’t lost on us: In a state with over 42,000 active duty military serving in its boundaries, Hawaii has the absolute highest number of students who can’t pass the ASVAB, according to the report released by the Education Trust.

In Hawaii, 38 percent of applicants couldn’t pass the test with the minimum score of 31 of 100 points. Nationally, the average is a 23 percent rate of failure.

But Kerschner doesn’t see a huge difference between Hawaii’s pool of military applicants and the ones he saw in the same position in Nevada, which is well below the national average for failure. “The Army is just a common slice of America. Our armed forces are a direct reflection of society,” he says. “For better or for worse.”

The state of Hawaii’s education system is constant fodder for debate; it’s not a new issue. But this is one of the immediate outcomes, playing out in the recruiting office, and maybe more quickly than other indicators.

Too Fat to Fight?

There’s something else we need to tell you, but we don’t know if there’s a nice way to say it. You’ve gained a few pounds, Hawaii. Like, 1.5 million pounds. And you have to lose ‘em before you can pick up a rifle and hope for a nice G.I. bill.

Hawaii ranks 11th nationwide in overweight and obese 18-to-24-year-olds, thanks to the 42 percent of that age group falling under that designation, says the nonprofit group Mission: Readiness. The group is advocating for school nutrition reform as a way to address the issue.

“We’re adding our voice to the chorus of voices asking the country to get this obesity and weight issue under control,” says retired Army Gen. David Bramlett, speaking on behalf of the group. A Hawaii resident, Bramlett teaches at Hawaii Pacific University.

“When three quarters of American youth can’t serve in the military, it’s not good for the country. We don’t want these young people’s choices in life to be inhibited by weight,” Bramlett says.

But state health officials are concerned the report doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the problem or the solution.

“Hawaii is actually one of the more progressive states,” says Glenna Owens, the department of education’s school food services director. “About five years ago, we started trying to reverse the trend of processed food in schools. We don’t have fryers in our schools. We use at least half whole wheat in our baked goods. And rice is fifty percent brown rice,” she says.

And the number of actual overweight and obese youth? Not so high, says Tonya Lowery-St. John, an epidemiologist for the State of Hawaii, pointing to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report that puts Hawaii 46th in childhood obesity, with only 16.5 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old age group as overweight.

The truth in numbers probably is somewhere in between. The Robert Wood Johnson report includes only obese children, at a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above. The Mission: Readiness report counts both overweight and obese youth, which is a BMI of 25 and over. Lowery-St. John says she thinks the military can accept a BMI of up to 27, not 25.

“Obesity is a problem everywhere,” says Lowery-St. John. “But really, we’re no worse off than 39 other states.”

Read the reports here:

“Shut out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for Today’s Army” by The Education Trust.

“Too Fat to Fight:  A Brief on Hawaii” by Mission: Readiness

“F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011” from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


(edited 9/28/11)

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