Obesity is a National Security Issue: Lieutenant General Mark Hertling at TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 (Transcript)

Hello, my name’s Hertling and I’m a soldier and — you probably could tell that. I’ve been in the military for 38 years. I’m thinking of making it a career. I have seen — I have seen and studied and analysed all types of security threats. I’ve fought in several wars but there’s an emerging threat that we’re seeing and I’d like to talk a little bit about today that I think will have an effect on our future, our economy, our youth and our economic system. It is an emerging threat that concerns me significantly and it’s represented in this picture.

Now you might think, why is a soldier talking about a young man who is obviously inactive and perhaps is a little bit overweight? And it’s because of some things I’ve seen in the last several years and I’d like to talk a little bit about those today and related to how I believe it could be a national security threat within the next 20 to 30 years.

First of all, in 1983, the Army sent me on something called a broadening experience. I was asked to go graduate school at Indiana University. I had studied as an undergraduate in International Relations but they said, “Hey we want you to go and get a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and then teach PE at West Point.” So I said, “Okay, sounds like a great idea. It’s broadening to be sure.” And I went out there — I went to Indiana University and my first class was an anatomy class and I had an anatomy lab. I walked into the classroom and they issued me a cadaver.

As they did everyone else in the class. And the cadaver I had, came with a medical history. The professor told us, “In order to respect the people who have given their bodies to science we’d ask you to respect them, too, and you perhaps wanna name them to remind yourself that they were once a person although we don’t wanna give you their real name.” So I named mine Charlie.

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Charlie had a medical history. He had been a two-pack-a-day smoker. Charlie had not exercised in the last 20 years. Charlie was extremely overweight and Charlie had died of a cardiovascular disease and he was 46 years old. When we pulled him up and we began, the various students in the room began our dissection of these bodies. I had a lot of a tougher time than some of the other students because I had to cut through several layers of adipose.

When I got to the internal body cavities it was amazing to me comparing Charlie’s organs to some of the organs of the other students in the class. The heart was surrounded by fat several inches. One of the tricks our instructors taught us was, you know, we had to through these labs where we had to name what vein was which and what artery was which, and the professor said, “If you pull on an artery, it’s like a rubber band. If you pull on a vein, it’s like a guitar string and it’ll twang.”

When I pulled on Charlie’s arteries and veins they broke off into my hand. So I finished grad school and went to teach at West Point for 3 years from ’83 to ’86 and then after that assignment I went back to the operational Army and did things that all soldiers do: commanded organizations, trained, went into combat several times, and then coming out of combat as a Division Commander in 2009 the Army decided they wanted to promote me to three-star General, I think because they wanted to prove they have a sense of humor. They then sent me to be the Commander of Initial Military Training.

My job was to train the 160,000 or so soldiers or correction: civilians, that would come into the Army every year and turn them into soldiers. What I found when I reported to that assignment disturbed me. Several facts came to my attention.

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First of all, 75% or more a little bit more actually of the civilians who wanted to join the Army were not qualified to do so. 75% of the 17-24 year olds who wanted to join the Army were not qualified and the number one reason was because they were obese. Of the 25% that could join the Army what we found on the first day of basic training was that about 60% of them could not pass the PT test that we gave on the first day. And that was: one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups and a one-mile run.

Now, that’s not a difficult test. But we were finding that a great majority of our new soldiers coming off the civilian environment, could not pass that test. I couldn’t understand what had happened. This was not what I had left studying physical education in 1986. As we did some analyses I realized that a couple of things had changed. First of all, number one and the primary reason was starting in the late ’90s the majority of our elementary and high schools stopped teaching PE, and in fact, only five states of the 50 of our country right now have mandatory requirements for physical education between K and 12th grade today. Five out of 50.

Now, you say, “Okay, well that’s interesting, but what does the Army care about that?” Well, we’re getting the product of that but in addition to second and third order effects were young people that were joining our service could not run, dodge, jump, tumble, roll the kinds of things you expect soldiers to do if they’re in combat.

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