I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
These are the Warrior Ethos. One of the things that defines an American soldier.
People join the armed services for all types of reasons. Some want to experience danger and take risks. Some want to take a different career path, and not work the typical 8-5 workday. Some want to truly embrace what it means to be American, and sacrifice anything they can for the ones they love.
For those and reasons and many others, there are approximately 1.4 million people serving in our armed forces today, many faced with the daily physical challenge of being an American soldier—everything from running, push-ups, pull-ups to jumping out of planes and belaying into combat zones. These tasks can be grueling on the body, but that is what you sign up for when you join the military.
Another thing that the military tests you on is your body composition. Each branch of the armed forces has a height and a weight standard and a method of testing each. Here is a little history about the Army specifically: the Army's height and weight standards are regulated in accordance to AR 600-9, the FM (Field Manual) appropriately titled The Army Body Composition Program, or ABCP for short. The FM originated as a way to enforce standards across units and ensure soldiers are at "an optimum level of individual readiness" (AR 600-9, 3).
The Army program requires soldiers to meet a prescribed body fat level, indicated in the table below, dependent on gender, height, and age. A soldier's height and weight is taken first. If those numbers do not fall in the respective guidelines, a method called 'taping' is used to further determine body fat. This "circumference-based taping method" (AR 600-9, 3) is the only authorized method for determining body fat in the Army.
In addition, "Commanders have the authority to direct a body fat assessment on any Soldier that they determine does not present a Soldierly appearance, regardless of whether or not the Soldier exceeds the screening table weight for his or her measured height" (AR 600-9, 3). Now, to explain the taping process a little more. It happens in three steps (female) and two steps (male) and is outlined in Appendix B:
First, a neck measurement, measured just below the larynx and rounded up to the nearest half inch.
Then an abdomen measurement. The abdominal circumference is taken near the belly button or waist.
Finally, for females, a hip measurement is taken over the widest part of the soldiers hips.
Three measurements of each step are taken and averaged together. These measurements in conjunction with height, are then used to determined body fat percentage. An example calculation is shown below.
And just like that, males with a body percentage greater than 20% and females with a percentage greater than 30% are considered unfit for the Army. The percentages do get slightly greater with age, however.
Some of the soldiers who fail this test are indeed overweight and do need the counseling and support that the Army can provide. Overweight soldiers are provided a personal coach to establish goals and timelines with them. They receive monthly weigh-ins and body percentage checks to ensure that they are on track. They are referred to nutritionists and physical trainers as well as regularly checked up on by their coach for guidance. They should have everything they need in order to achieve success.
The problem, however, lies with the people that aren't actually overweight, but still do not meet weight standards. These soldiers may exemplify all the characteristics of a good soldier and be an excellent addition to any company or platoon. They may to be able to run faster or jump higher than other soldiers, but if they are not meeting these standards, they run the risk of being dismissed from the Army all together. Their career is on the line.
A reason for this is that the taping method has been proved widely inaccurate. According to Dr. Jordan Moon, the director of the Sports Science Center Research Institute in Denver, "it doesn’t account for muscle, it just accounts for size.” This puts muscular soldiers at a large disadvantage. An article by Staff writer Jon Anderson dives even deeper into this topic.
In May 2013, the source he writes for, Tape test protest: One Marine takes his body-fat fight to the top, measured 10 service members both using a tape test and a hydrostatic dunk tank, one of the most accurate ways to gauge body fat. Variation in the numbers was between 12% and 66% (!), with the dunk tank always reading a lower result.
One female soldier consistently taped at 32% body fat (barely in regulation) but had a dunk tank score of 21%. Even if the tape test is only off by a couple percent, it could be the difference between a career-ending score and a good one.
I was fortunate enough to interview an anonymous Army ROTC cadet who was repeatedly subjected to the tape test during her three years in the program.
"It sucks. Every time I am in that room, with my shirt pulled up and the tape wrapped around my waist, my sergeant sitting in the corner, saying 'I swear it will be the last time.' But it never is."
She went on to say that, "The worst part is that they know this isn't the best method. They know I contribute so much more to this program than a number will ever be able to say. But it happens anyways."
Other branches of the military are facing similar difficulties as BCP enrollees and discharges are on the rise; in 2011, the Department of Defense. In 2015, that number rose to 7.8%. Even the Marine Corp has doubled the number of discharges due to BCP since 2011.Staff Sergeant Jeff Smith found himself in a tricky spot in 2009 when he was admitted to the Marine Corp Body Composition Program. He said he "never felt out of fighting shape," recently finishing the San Diego Marathon with an impressive time of four hours and 22 minutes. He made it his mission to change the Marine Corp tape test to help others in his position keep their jobs.
Staff Sergeant Smith's case was an extreme one, however there are some positives that come along with doing the tape test. When you are faced with the task of finding the body fat of 100 soldiers, it is the cheapest and easiest way. And for most soldiers, it works.
Right now, there is no solution for that one. Soldiers in all branches of the United States Military are faced with BCP-related problems that affect their daily life, job, and service to their country. They are forced into this mindset that losing weight will make them a better soldier, when that isn't always the case. Both the Body Composition Program and much-debated tape test are pieces of the military that have a long-standing history. And we all know history is hard to change.