Military personnel take extreme measures to meet body-fat and weight rules

Battle of the Bulge
Battle of the Bulge (Above, Washington Post Photo Illustration; Photo Below By Mark D. Faram/navy Times)
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By Lance M. Bacon, Scott Fontaine and James K. Sanborn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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.

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