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Study: Soldiers use extreme methods to meet military weight rules
Health experts say the number of soldiers using extreme weight-loss methods may closely resemble results of a recent study by two officers attending the Naval Post Graduate School. The study found that nearly one in three Marines
have gone to such measures to lose weight. The Army doesn't keep data
on the likely numbers of soldiers taking these risks, 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.
Additionally, more than a third of men in uniform do not meet height and weight standards, according to a separate 2009 report.
"Liposuction saved my career — laxatives and starvation before an (Army Physical Fitness Test) sustains my career," a soldier told Army Times in an e-mail. "I for one can attest
that soldiers are using liposuction, laxatives and starvation to meet
height and weight standards. I did, do and still do," wrote the
soldier, a medium helicopter repairer.
"Six years ago, I spent $4,500 on liposuction while on (permanent change of station) leave. As a crewmember, our mission is to keep those aircraft in the air, and time for PT is not
available," he wrote. "I was blessed with a very slow metabolism and an
Soldiers know they will face the dreaded "tape" if they exceed height/weight standards. The tape measurements are used to determine body fat percentage, with limits set by age group and
Soldiers are afraid of those limits, knowing that if they cross that line they won't be promotable. Further, they cannot be assigned to leadership positions and they are not authorized
to attend professional military schools. Their career is over if they
don't make satisfactory weight loss in two months — typically six to 16
The danger to careers is real.
About 24,000 soldiers were discharged between 1992 and 2007 for failure to comply with weight standards outlined in Army Regulation 600-9, according to the 2009 Military Services Fitness
Database report, which was published in the journal Military Medicine.
In comparison, the Army discharged less than a tenth of that number —
2,342 soldiers — for failing the physical fitness test between 1999 and
To save their careers, some soldiers turn to excessive, unnatural and unhealthy measures.
Extent of practice not known
With 35% of male soldiers failing the weight standards, and 6% of men and women exceeding body fat standards, according to the 2009 report, how many of them will turn to extreme
solutions is hard to say, as empirical data on this practice does not
exist — a fact bemoaned by the medical experts interviewed by Army Times.
"I don't think we have a clear understanding how widespread this problem is," said Col. George Dilly, Medical Command's chief dietician and a consultant to the Army surgeon general. "Soldiers
are hiding the fact they are doing this because they don't want the
Dilly said the typical scenario is well known. As a soldier approaches his semi-annual weigh-in, he may use diuretics and laxatives to reduce fluid and lower his weight. But this can be a
deadly decision, Dilly said, because it causes dehydration, and the
loss of essential electrolytes can lead to cardiac arrest. Worse yet,
this approach has no effect on the individual's body fat.
"This is not a long-term strategy," he said. "In fact, it's a very dangerous short-term strategy."
Second Lt. Lane Stover knows this all too well. The 5-foot-4-inch quartermaster said she went to extreme measures to keep the weight off.
"When I ate more than I thought I should, I would purge, and punish myself by heading to the gym or out on a late-night run," she said in an e-mail to Army Times. "I would
often take laxatives, in excess of the prescribed amount, and knew
exactly how long it would take for them to go into effect. It was a
disgusting and dangerous practice that I thought would help me.
Stover said she entered therapy and went to support groups to fix her problem, but said one problem remains.
"My behaviors aren't the only problem. The Army's weight standard is," she said. "Until the Army takes a closer look at the weight regulations and methods for determining body fat,
soldiers will resort to extreme measures to ensure they are within
their weight requirements."
Alejandra Lewis said she had taken laxatives and starved herself "a couple of times" in preparation for the PT test. She said the problem was not her weight, but the way the Army measures body
"Every person has a different shape of body; not everyone is the same," she wrote to Army Times. "When I joined the military I went down 80 pounds starving myself and (using) laxatives. I had to do it because even though I had met weight,
I have thick thighs. The tape measure said I was over, so I had to lose
even more weight just to meet the standards. They need to change it
because it isn't fair."
The fact that soldiers are taking these steps is no secret in the cosmetic-surgery community.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Melissa Gash, based at Fort Riley, Kan., said she recently saw a poster for liposuction at the post gym.
"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. Americans
are all about fast results and immediate gratification. Whatever
happened to working hard to accomplish a goal and feeling the
satisfaction after earning what you set your sights on?"
But military health professionals say troops should not believe all the hype — and should be aware of the risks involved.
"We want soldiers to look right," said Dr. Thomas Williams, a retired colonel who heads the Army Physical Fitness Research Institute. "But they also need to feel right and perform
right, and you can't get that from a pill or a procedure."
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