By Lance M. Bacon, Scott Fontaine and James K. Sanborn
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 31, 2011; 5:26 PM
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Heather Sommerdyke spent $12,000 on two liposuction surgeries last spring. She was running eight to 10 miles, six days a week. She even switched to a starvation diet. It was all part of a last-ditch effort to trim her waistline to the 35.5-inch maximum for female airmen. She gave birth to her second child two years ago, and her midsection never quite recovered.
Sommerdyke is 5-foot-7 and has plenty of muscle and "the bone structure of a guy," she said. She can pass the other portions of the Air Force's strict physical training (PT) requirements: the run, the push-ups and the sit-ups. But her 37-inch waistline - not her weight - is her problem.
"I hate having to treat my body this way," said Sommerdyke. "I lose strength and stamina, and it takes a toll on the mental health as well, which seems to be contrary to what we should really be pushing for: health and strength for flight-line work and deployments."
It is no surprise that the military services require a high degree of physical fitness, and the vast majority of service members can pass those tests. But the military also has weight limits based on height, age and sex. If a soldier's weight or waistline is over the limit during twice-a-year fitness testing, he or she is given two months to lose the excess.
Thirty-five percent of male soldiers do not meet the weight standards, and 6 percent of all soldiers exceed body-fat standards, according to a 2009 report published in the journal Military Medicine. The report said that about 24,000 Army personnel were discharged between 1992 and 2007 for failure to comply with weight standards.
Soldiers are afraid of those limits, knowing that if they cross that line they won't be promotable, cannot be assigned to leadership positions and are not authorized to attend professional military schools.
Those restrictions go into effect as soon as a soldier fails any part of the semiannual fitness test or weighs more than allowed. They remain in effect until the soldier retests satisfactorily, or until the Army discharges him or her for repeated failure to make standards. (The other services have similar standards.)
Army Staff Sgt. Eric M. Pettengill at Fort Eustis, Va., wrote in an e-mail response to an Army Times online query seeking comment: "The Army needs to look at the current height and weight standards and realize that not everyone is built the same - you can be a gym rat and still have a gut and fail the tape test. They need to have alternate ways of estimating body fat on a person besides using the tape."Drastic measures
Pressure to meet strict requirements has led some to take drastic steps.
The Army doesn't have data on the number of soldiers using extreme measures to meet the standards, but dozens of soldiers responded to a question from Army Times, many saying they use starvation, dehydration, pills or laxatives, and some have used - or are considering using - liposuction.
"I don't think we have a clear understanding how widespread this problem is," said Col. George Dilly, chief dietitian of the Army Medical Command, which oversees the service's medical programs worldwide. "Soldiers are hiding the fact they are doing this because they don't want the problem exposed."
The standards vary slightly from one branch of the military to another.
The Marine Corps tightened its rules in 2008, eliminating the leniency once shown to Marines who run afoul of body-fat standards but still score high on their physical fitness test.
The Air Force responded to years of complaints about waistline requirements by adding a few inches to the men's and women's measurements when it unveiled new PT standards last year. Until July 1, men needed a 32.5-inch waist to earn a perfect score, even though many airmen said that goal was impractical. The new standard raised that measurement to 35 inches for men, and from 29 inches to 31.5 inches for women. (Those are perfect scores, with passing scores a few inches over that.) But the Air Force also moved from annual fitness tests to twice-a-year tests.
A 2009 study by two officers at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., found that nearly one in three Marines were so afraid of violating the Corps' standards that they have used extreme weight-loss methods, including starvation, taking laxatives and surgery.
But the rate may be much higher than that, said Capt. Paula Taibi, one of the study's co-authors. More than 70 percent of the 390 Marines who responded to her survey were from the junior enlisted and officer ranks - and not long out of boot camp or Officer Candidate School. If so many men and women in peak physical shape are using risky means to blast fat and avoid the measuring tape soon after joining the Corps, she said, then a lot of career Marines with far more to lose probably do it, too. The report concludes that unconventional methods for weight loss are "widespread" within the Corps.
There are reports of Marines employing risky weight-loss techniques even while deployed in Afghanistan. Sgt. Shane Trefftzs, who works in the operations division of I Marine Expeditionary Force, told Marine Corps Times in an e-mail that after his command announced a weigh-in, some members of his unit took diuretics, laxatives and diet pills and fasted. "We're in a combat zone. Is this a smart idea?"
The Marine Corps commandant's office casts doubt on the Naval Postgraduate School study, saying the sample size was neither large enough nor diverse enough to accurately represent how widespread the trend may be.
Under former commandant Gen. James Conway, body composition standards were tightened. Maj. Joseph Plenzler, a spokesman for the commandant's office, said Conway encouraged Marines to be smart about how they stayed trim, but that didn't mean that looking the part wasn't considered vital.
"We Marines have historically held ourselves to high standards in both fitness and appearance," Plenzler said. "There are some Marines who may meet all established physical standards yet fail to present a suitable military appearance, and this is inconsistent with the Marine Corps' leadership principle of setting the example."
There is no indication that Conway's successor, Gen. James Amos, will let up on the tighter standards. To ensure that these rules are honored, an order was released in January codifying the way body-fat percentage is recorded on a Marine's annual review.No secret
That soldiers are taking urgent steps is no secret in cosmetic-surgery circles. Jules Feledy, the senior partner at Belmont Plastic and Reconstructive Plastic Surgery, said he has seen a rise in the number of Marines coming to his office near the Marine Corps base in Quantico since the Corps tightened its standards. The Marines he sees are typically in superior shape, he said, but desperate to flatten their midsections to beat the tape, a measurement he, too, believes doesn't reflect physical abilities.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Melissa Gash recently saw a poster for liposuction at the post gym at Fort Riley, Kan. "The bottom of the poster clearly states that advertisement does not mean endorsement, but the fact that material like that is even allowed on post, and more specifically where soldiers go to get fit, is inappropriate," she said. "It gives the soldier the false impression that liposuction should even be an option."
Army Times also found liposuction ads in numerous base newspapers.
Most Marines who consider liposuction aren't out of shape, said Robert Peterson, a Hawaii-based plastic surgeon who has operated on many service members. "We mostly see Navy because many of them work long shifts on boats and submarines where exercise is difficult," Peterson said. "But we do get Marines. When we see them, they are usually fit. They just have a spare tire."
Like other plastic surgeons located near military installations, Peterson advertises to service members - and even offers a $500 discount on procedures that cost $5,000 or more. For many of his patients, the payoff comes in getting to keep their job, he said.
The authors are writers for, respectively, Army Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times, independent publications that are part of Gannett Government Media Corp., which previously published versions of this article.