THE BLOG
10/17/2011 11:41 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

Is The U.S. In Shape to Be A World Power?

Here's a homeland security question all presidential candidates need to answer: are you aware of how many Americans are in poor physical condition and how this trend affects our defense capabilities?

This story isn't new but it got another bump in the media recently when the Army surgeon general announced that 15 percent of active forces would not be able to deploy for medical reasons. The Deputy surgeon general added that recruits now have the highest body mass indexes ever recorded.

None of this should be surprising. Two years ago an organization of retired officers called "Mission: Readiness" issued a report warning that 75 percent of Americans in the 17 to 24 age group would not qualify for military service and health was cited as a major factor. The report said about 25 percent of young Americans were too overweight to join the ranks.

It's beginning to sound eerily similar to another fitness crisis that confronted the armed forces seventy years ago. As the U.S. entered World War Two and induction centers began processing waves of incoming volunteers and draftees, officials were surprised and dismayed by the huge numbers of men who couldn't serve because they were physically unfit.

The hardships of the Depression, with millions of Americans surviving on diets that were, shall we say, nutritionally challenged, had a terrible effect on the collective health of this country and alarmed military planners who were trying to estimate how many soldiers and sailors would be available for the huge task ahead.

One result of the wartime personnel shortage was wider awareness of public health and physical fitness in everyday life. Gym class became a standard part of the jr. high and high school curriculum for nearly every kid in America after the war ended. But during the past 15 years, as school districts have been forced to get by with tighter and tighter budgets, PE has been disappearing from daily class schedules.

You can be sure that potential adversaries are paying attention to reports like "Operation: Readiness" and the latest news from the Army surgeon general. They've also seen how our fighting forces were stretched to the limit during the long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The questions they're likely to be pondering right now are 1) How many troops could the U.S. commit to another major combat operation and 2) How long would we be able to sustain it?"

Can we really claim the ability to project American power anywhere in the world, at any time, when 75 percent of our 17 to 24 year olds can't meet the qualifications for military service? And let's not forget the study released last year predicting that more than 40 percent of Americans could be obese by 2050.

Politicians who claim they want to "keep America strong" shouldn't be allowed to rely on platitudes about building more missiles, bombers and other expensive hardware. The foundation of a strong America is a healthy population, and our future strength is in jeopardy when the physical condition of so many citizens is declining.

Voters need to know how the candidates in both parties feel about this subject. Do they think we have a national problem that requires corrective measures or not? Ignoring the issue won't make it go away. It's time for all presidential hopefuls to shape up their thinking and start the discussion -- a really STRONG discussion.