Mission Critical: Strengthening America’s Youth and Armed Forces

Mission Critical: Strengthening America’s Youth and Armed Forces

by Rear Admiral (RET.) Mary E. Landry

During my three decades of service in the United States Coast Guard, I helped to coordinate large-scale responses to some of the worst natural and man-made disasters imaginable. Through floods, oil spills, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I relied on a team of smart, healthy, and resilient young men and women to carry out critical public safety, security, and environmental response operations.

I spent a good amount of time in efforts to bring the next generation along to ensure America is ready for future challenges, but I am concerned that there are many young adults who will never have a chance to be part of this critical team of responders.

According to the Department of Defense, 71 percent of all young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to serve in the armed forces. This is largely due to three major factors: poor education, obesity, or a record of crime or drug abuse.

In a constantly changing world, unpredictable threats and demands require service members who can think critically and act quickly. Today, one in five young Americans does not graduate from high school on time, and it is very rare for a recruit to enlist without a high school diploma. Among those who do graduate and try to join the military, another one in five cannot pass the military’s entrance exam on math, literacy, and problem solving. We need men and women who can employ basic logic, math, and literacy skills. As our challenges evolve, so must our ability to think and respond strategically.

The second major threat to our recruiting efforts is obesity. Today, nearly one in three young Americans is too overweight for military service. The consequences go beyond being able to keep up during a run—weak bones and muscles from poor nutrition, being overweight, and lack of exercise play a major role in creating debilitating stress fractures and muscle injuries.

These types of injuries explain why roughly 30 percent of the Army’s reserve population is non-deployable, and are the leading reason for medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, having a record of crime or drug abuse presents significant problems for maintaining a strong defense and for disaster preparedness. Today, 30 percent of young adults cannot enlist because of drug abuse and 10 percent are ineligible because they have at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor.

These barriers present significant problems for maintaining a strong defense and disaster preparedness. But these problems are not unique to the military, and the military cannot fix them on its own. Without major changes by the American public, policymakers, and other stakeholders, it will become more and more difficult to maintain an all-volunteer force in the future.

Out of our shared concern, more than 600 retired admirals and generals, including myself, have mobilized in the form of the organization Mission: Readiness. Like missions we took on during our time in uniform, we have a clear plan of attack that is based on solid research.

First, we need to make meaningful improvements to our education system. Many factors have an impact on educational achievement, but high-quality early childhood education has proven consistently successful.

Quality early education can help reverse the primary disqualifiers for military service by boosting graduation rates, deterring youth from crime, and even reducing obesity rates by instilling healthy eating and exercise habits that contribute to a lifelong culture of health. For example, a long-term study of children who participated in a Chicago early learning program found that they were 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school—and those who were left out of the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

Preschools in several different areas across the country that served nutritious food, increased physical activity among children, and coached parents on these topics saw declines in child obesity of five to 24 percent.

Second, we need to ensure our children grow up with healthy eating habits. Good nutrition starts at home, but many kids get up to half of their daily calories at school so it just makes sense to ensure they are eating healthful foods there, too.

The National School Lunch Program was created after World War II “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children.” At the time, recruits were so malnourished that they were too frail to fight. Today, many are still malnourished, but they are too overweight to fight.

As the program evolved, school cafeterias became known as a place for processed, high-fat and sugar-laden foods. That is why we strongly supported the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2010, bipartisan legislation that required healthier school meals and snacks. Today, school foods are no longer filled with fat, sugar, and sodium, and instead incorporate fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Congress is currently debating the latest reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, and we continue to work hard to ensure that the healthier school meal standards are maintained.

Finally, we need to help children become active again. Seven in ten young people in the U.S. do not receive the recommended one hour of physical activity every day. It is no coincidence that over the last 40 years, while the childhood obesity rate has tripled, the percentage of children nationwide who walk or bike to school has dropped from nearly 50 percent to 13 percent.  Across the country, we have mobilized to increase the quality and quantity of physical education in our schools and to make strategic investments in walking and biking infrastructure in our communities.

Our goal is not to steer kids into a life of military service. Retired admirals and generals believe that we all have a responsibility to help young people grow up to stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble so that they can succeed at whatever they choose in life, including a career in the military. Our future national security and ability to deal with disasters depends on it.

About the Author

Mary E. Landry retired from the U.S. Coast Guard at the rank of Rear Admiral in 2011. As a flag officer she served as Director of Governmental and Public Affairs at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC. Her subsequent tour was as the Commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District and Commander of Task Force 189.8, headquartered in New Orleans. During this tour she served as Federal on Scene Coordinator in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and oversaw the service’s response to the historic 2011 Mississippi River Valley floods. From April 2012 to August 2015, Ms. Landry was the inaugural Director of Incident Management and Preparedness at Coast Guard Headquarters. From May 2013 to May 2014 Ms. Landry was detailed to the White House as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience Policy.

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