WASHINGTON — Under intense pressure to trim its budget, the Army is dismissing a rising number of soldiers who do not meet its fitness standards, drawing from a growing pool of troops grappling with obesity.
Obesity is now the leading cause of ineligibility for people who want to join the Army, according to military officials, who see expanding waistlines in the warrior corps as a national security concern.
Between 1998 and 2010, the number of active duty military personnel deemed obese more than tripled. In 2010, 86,183 troops, or 5.3 percent of the force, received at least one clinical diagnosis of obesity, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center in Silver Spring, Md.
The trend has prompted the military to re-examine its training programs and is driving commanders to weed out soldiers who are deemed unfit to fight.
“A healthy and fit force is essential to national security," Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. “Our service members must be physically prepared to deploy on a moment’s notice anywhere on the globe to extremely austere and demanding conditions."
During the first 10 months of this year, the Army kicked out 1,625 soldiers for being out of shape, nearly 16 times the number eased out for that reason in 2007, the peak of wartime deployment cycles.
Under a mandate to wean down the force by tens of thousands in coming years, the Army has instructed commanders to make few exceptions when it comes to fitness, a strategy it also employed during the period after the 1991 Gulf War.
“During a war period, when we were ramping up, the physical standards didn’t have a lot of teeth because we needed bodies to go overseas, to fill platoons and brigades," said Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and fitness expert who has designed workout routines for service members and law enforcement personnel struggling to meet workplace fitness standards. “During a period of drawdown, everything starts getting teeth and that’s kind of where we are again."