Every Nov. 11, Americans use Veteran’s Day to remember and thank the brave men and women of our armed forces and their families for the sacrifices they have made in order to protect and serve our country. As we take a moment to celebrate their service, we should also be mindful of perhaps the greatest threat our current military forces face—a threat that jeopardizes our nation’s recruiting ability and risks the strength of our military: the U.S. obesity epidemic.

Today, more than one-third (or 74.6 million) of U.S. adults have obesity. Obesity is, in many respects, the “disease of disease,” as it is associated with—and a trigger for—more than 90 other chronic medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, and cancer. Unfortunately, the problem is not getting better; absent targeted efforts to curb this epidemic, some estimates show, 51 percent of the American population will have obesity in less than 15 years. 

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The obesity epidemic isn’t just a civilian issue. Members of our military forces and their families are grappling with this enemy that is waging a fight off the battlefield, and having a staggering effect on our nation’s ability to retain and recruit healthy servicemen and women. According to a September 2014 report released by Mission: Readiness, “Retreat is Not an Option,” more than 12 percent of active-duty service members were struggling with obesity in 2011—a 61 percent increase in less than ten years. Increased incidence of obesity has led to heavier and less fit service members who are, among other things, more prone to injury and illness. Current obesity rates also cause the military to spend well over $1 billion a year to treat weight-related health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, through its TRICARE health insurance program. 

In 2012, the Army was forced to dismiss 3,000 soldiers, while the Navy and Air Force each dismissed 1,300 soldiers for being overweight or out of shape. In doing so, according to the same report from Mission: Readiness, the military spent nearly half a billion dollars to recruit, screen, and train their replacements. These losses are in addition to increased health care spending within the military, which accounts for 10 percent of the total defense budget.  

The rise of obesity in the military also presents significant recruiting challenges, with nearly one in four young adults too heavy to serve should they choose to apply. In fact, data released in the Mission: Readiness report shows that overall ineligibility to serve is above 70 percent in most states. Accordingly, some top military leaders worry that, by 2020, as much as 50 percent of potential recruits would not meet the weight eligibility requirements and only 2 in 10 would qualify to join the Armed Services.  

Despite these mounting recruiting and retaining challenges the military is facing, there are policy solutions that could provide service members and potential recruits access to the resources they need to live healthy lifestyles. The public health community and everyday Americans must work together with Members of Congress and the Administration to ensure these young adults have access to healthy foods in schools and communities, opportunities to be physically active, and access to medically necessary clinical tools to help individuals manage their weight. Later this year, it is my hope that Congress will do its part in this fight and reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to ensure that students are offered healthy foods in schools as well as ensure that there are physical education provisions in the upcoming reauthorization of the Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Additionally, we need to identify other approaches—including in tax policy—to facilitate healthy lifestyle choices. In short, it is my hope that together, we can help make the healthy choice, the easy choice for Americans. 

Though faced with a daunting task, our military, as always, can and will persevere with the help of policymakers who support commonsense policies can help create a healthier, fitter nation that is willing and able to serve.

Goudeseune is president of the American Council on Exercise and a member of the Board of Directors of the Campaign to End Obesity.