Daily Dispatches
U.S. Marine Cpl. Ryan Foster talks about the training program he uses to help overweight service members improve their conditioning and avoid being dismissed from the military.
Associated Press/Photo by Lenny Ignelzi
U.S. Marine Cpl. Ryan Foster talks about the training program he uses to help overweight service members improve their conditioning and avoid being dismissed from the military.

Troops trim for fat test using liposuction

Military

Soldiers often call plastic surgeon Adam Tattelbaum in a panic. They need liposuction—fast.

Some military personnel are turning to the surgical procedure to remove excess fat from their waists in a desperate attempt to pass the Pentagon’s body fat test, which determines their future prospects in the military.

“They come in panicked about being kicked out or getting a demerit that will hurt their chances at a promotion,” the Rockville, Md., surgeon said.

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The military does not ban liposuction, but it does not condone surgically altering a soldier’s body just to pass the fat test. The cost of the procedure can exceed $6,000, and military insurance won’t cover something considered “cosmetic.”

Service members say they are under intense scrutiny as the military trims its ranks because of budget cuts and winding down the war in Afghanistan. Failing the test three times can be grounds for getting kicked out, and many service members believe even one failure can affect promotion possibilities.

Defense Department officials say the test ensures troops are ready for the rigors of combat, but service members complain that the method of estimating body fat weeds out not just flabby physiques but bulkier, muscular builds.

Fitness experts agree and have joined calls for the military to revamp its fitness standards. They say the Pentagon’s weight tables are outdated and do not reflect that Americans are now bigger, though not necessarily less healthy.

Jeffrey Stout, a sports science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the tape test, which relies on the measure of the neck and weight, describes the body’s shape not its composition—the percentage of body fat or the ratio of fat to muscle.

“I wouldn’t want my career decided on that,” he said. 

Stout believes a more accurate method would be to use calipers to measure the thickness of skin on three different parts of the body, or to use the body mass index, a system based on an individual’s height and weight.

“That way these guys are not hurt by a bad measurement,” said Stout, who researches the accuracy of different body composition measurements.

Military officials say the tape test is still the best, most cost-effective tool available, with a margin of error of less than 1 percent.

Air Force Gen. Mark Walsh noted only about 348 of 1.3 million airmen failed the tape test but excelled otherwise.

Even so, his branch heeded the complaints and modified its fitness program in October. The Air Force obtained a waiver from the Pentagon so airmen who fail the tape test but pass physical fitness exams can be measured using the body mass index.

Marine Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Smith, who has not been promoted since failing the tape test once in 2009, applauded the Air Force move: “There’s got to be something better for Marines who are working hard but just born like a tree stump.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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