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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Big, Fat Mistake

Mike Huckabee cited a bloated statistic, claiming obesity disqualifies three out of four young Americans from military service. The actual total is closer to one in four.

The former Arkansas governor (and possible GOP presidential contender in 2012) was on "Fox News Sunday" on Feb. 27, explaining why he has defended First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign against attacks by some fellow Republicans.

Huckabee: What Michelle Obama has proposed is that we recognize that we have a serious obesity crisis, which we do. Seventy-five percent of the military-eligible kids going into the Army can’t qualify for the physical because they’re either overweight or obese and can’t meet the minimum Army standards.

That’s serious. This is no longer just a health issue, an economic issue. It is becoming an issue of national security.

It’s true that obesity among America’s youth has become a problem for military recruiting. It’s the leading medical reason that applicants are rejected, in fact. But it doesn’t account for anywhere near 75 percent of all rejections.

Huckabee is giving a garbled version of a report called "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," issued in 2009 by a group called Mission: Readiness, a group of retired military leaders that includes Gens. John M. Shalikashvili and Wesley Clark, among many others. It listed obesity as just one of several "common barriers" that disqualify young Americans from serving in the military.

The report said:

Mission: Readiness, Nov. 5, 2009: Startling statistics released by the Pentagon show that 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are currently unable to enlist in the United States military. Three of the most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to graduate high school, a criminal record, and physical fitness issues, including obesity.

The report went on to say that "27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military," citing figures given by a research analyst with the U.S. Army. In a footnote, the report noted that 19 percent have weight as the only issue keeping them out, while the remainder have other disqualifying health problems as well. So, the actual number of those who "can’t qualify for the physical because they’re either overweight or obese" — as Huckabee put it — is either 19 percent or 27 percent, depending on whether he meant to cite weight as the sole reason.

In a later report titled "Too Fat to Fight," the group backed up Huckabee’s basic argument that obesity is becoming "an issue of national security." 

Mission: Readiness, April 20, 2010: If we don’t take steps now to build a strong, healthy foundation for our young people, then it won’t just be our military that pays the price – our nation as a whole will suffer also.

For the record, Mission: Readiness is lobbying to "get the junk food out of our schools," to increase spending for better quality meals served in schools, and to give more children access to anti-obesity programs.