Recruits entering the Army are reportedly more out of shape than they’ve ever been, costing the branch millions of dollars as it attempts to overcome its worst recruiting crisis in decades.
A study in the Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases journal found the increased prevalence of unfit Army recruits has led to an alarming rate of injuries to soldiers going through their initial entry training, presenting another issue for a branch already having difficulty finding enough recruits to fill the ranks.
The research, which studied trainees entering the Army during fiscal year 2017, found the nearly 35% of initial-entry trainees suffered at least one musculoskeletal injury during training. The problem was most pronounced among women, with 62% of female trainees suffering a musculoskeletal injury compared to 32% of male recruits.
Perhaps even more troublesome, the study found that recruits from the South, a typical recruiting hotbed for the military, were more prone to injury during training, accounting for eight of the worst-performing 10 states for trainee injuries.
Recruits entering the Army are reportedly more out of shape than they’ve ever been, costing the branch millions of dollars as it attempts to overcome its worst recruiting crisis in decades. (Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images / File)
The medical costs associated with treating the trainee injuries have piled up, with the study estimating that the Army spent $14.8 million on the issue in fiscal year 2017 alone. About $7.2 million of that cost was attributed to eight southern states, which included Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina. New York and Rhode Island joined the southern states in the top 10.
“Recruits coming from southern states are less physically fit and more likely to sustain [musculoskeletal injuries] during initial military training,” the study notes.
Thomas Spoehr, director for the Center for National Defense for the Heritage Foundation, told Fox News Digital that implications of the issue will likely hurt the Army’s readiness down the line.
“The military, and the Army especially, has its best chance of recruiting somebody in the southern states, they call it the ‘Southern Crescent,'” Spoehr said. “It highlights that their propensity or willingness or desire to serve isn’t necessarily equated to the physical fitness level that people come in with.”
Spoehr said that while the South is the military’s most fertile recruiting ground, it is also the region of the country with some of the highest rates of obesity and lowest rates of physical activity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South just slightly eclipses the Midwest as the U.S. region with the highest obesity rate, coming in at 36.3% while the Midwest checks in at 35.4%. Meanwhile, the American West comes in with the lowest obesity rates, coming in at 28.7%.
The military is currently facing a recruiting crisis unseen since the switch to an all-volunteer model nearly four decades ago, with the Army being particularly hard-hit by the problem. During fiscal year 2022, the Army fell 15,000 soldiers short of meeting its recruiting target.
“In the Army’s most challenging recruiting year since the start of the all-volunteer force, we will only achieve 75% of our fiscal year  recruiting goal,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a statement in last October.
Service members of the 330th Movement Control Battalion stand in formation at Zagan, Poland. (U.S. Army / Sgt. Joseph Aleman / File)
But getting recruits into the Army is just one step in filling the ranks. Spoehr noted that about 10% of recruits will wash out of initial entry training, a number that could increase as more unfit recruits attempt to fill the ranks.
“People that get lost in initial entry training is about 10%. That may not sound high, but when you figure in all the effort that the Army went through to recruit those people … it typically costs at least $30,000 per recruit to get them signed up,” Spoehr said. “It just further contributes to an inability to recruit the number of people that we need for the military. That in turn translates into a weaker military.”
In response to the crisis, the Army recently announced an expansion to a program that allows the branch to enlist candidates who do not meet the weight and aptitude requirements and put them through a 90-day course aimed at helping them meet the standard before basic training.
The program has so far been hailed a success, with 2,965 of the 3,206 students who have participated in the course before the expansion completing it and moving on to basic training.
The Army missed its 2022 recruiting goals by 25%. (U.S. Army / File)
According to Spoehr, such programs are a step in a positive direction for the military.
“It’s a costly kind of thing … we have to pay these people to be there, and we have to house them and feed them,” Spoehr said. “But in the end, it’s working out.”
Spoehr says the program could even be expanded, allowing recruits to prepare for training while still at home and ultimately lowering the cost for the military.
“We don’t have to accept the status quo that only 23% of people are eligible and we’re happy to live with that,” he said. “We try and get that number back up to 26, 27 or 28%.”
However, the Army still faces significant headwinds to overcome the crisis. Some critics have argued that the military’s turn to “woke” policies in place of readiness has alienated many who would have otherwise been willing to serve. Meanwhile, polls have found the country’s youngest demographics have declining rates of patriotism, a value highly correlated with military service.
According to the results of a Wall Street Journal/NORC poll released last month, the percentage of Americans who hold patriotism as a “very important” value to them has declined 32% over the last 25 years. The lack of patriotic values is most pronounced in the 18-29 age range, with only 36% of those in that demographic indicating patriotism was a “very important” value in their life.
Spoehr believes it would take a nationwide effort to reverse the trend, starting with the country’s education system.
“I think part of that is probably our education system,” he said, adding that it would also take leaders, such as the president, taking the initiative and consistently delivering a message of the virtues of service.
“The good news is, it’s reversible,” he continued. “We can, if we put our minds together, we can change that. But it’s going to require people thinking differently about America.”
Spoehr says another area in which the military needs to improve is how it markets service to young people, noting that benefits for military service have remained mostly unchanged in the last 40 years and are typically marketed to those with a family.
The medical costs associated with treating the trainee injuries have piled up, with the study estimating that the Army spent $14.8 million on the issue in fiscal year 2017 alone. (Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images / File)
“Our benefits and pay system has been designed primarily with either retirees or people that are already in service in mind, and not so much for the purpose of attracting people to join,” Spoehr said. “The GI Bill was and is a great benefit, but now there’s many other employers … that offer college tuition, so that has lost some of its value.”
Some of the other benefits Spoehr pointed to were family housing, medical care and the military grocery stores known as commissaries. Those are things that young people “don’t think about,” he said, arguing that to attract more youth and overcome the crisis, the military will need to meet young people where they are.
“They think about time off, where they can be assigned,” Spoehr said. “Can they be assigned with their friends? What’s my life going to be like? Can I have a pet? All these kinds of things our current compensation system doesn’t address.”