On Oct 28, several plastic surgeons, military members and fitness experts spoke out about the number of military personnel turning to liposuction in order to pass outdated fitness tests. More than ever before, soldiers are asking to have fat removed from their stomach areas so they can past the test.
The Defense Department uses what is called a "tape test" to make a body fat estimate by taking measurements of the waist and neck. Those who fail spend months in a vigorous exercise and nutrition program, which Marines call the "pork chop platoon" or "doughnut brigade." Even if they later pass, failing the test once can halt promotions for years, and failing three times can be grounds for getting kicked out.
Military studies show a correlation between waist size, body fat and physical endurance, military officials say. They insist the tape test is the best, most cost-effective tool available, with a margin of error of less than 1 percent. Officials point to the fact that the number of Army soldiers booted for being overweight has jumped tenfold in the past five years from 168 in 2008 to 1,815. In the Marine Corps, the figure nearly doubled from 102 in 2010 to 186 in 2011 but dropped to 132 last year.
Air Force Gen. Mark Walsh noted only about 348 of 1.3 million airmen have failed the tape test but excelled otherwise.
Fitness experts and doctors disagree stating that the tables are outdated and don’t take into consideration that many service members are bulking up muscularly. They are calling for the military's fitness standards to be revamped, including the weight tables the Pentagon uses. They say the tables are outdated and do not reflect that Americans are bigger, though not necessarily less healthy.
The checks are designed to ensure troops are ready for the rigors of combat. Yet the Air Force took various comments under consideration and modified its fitness program in October 2013. 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, which is a chart based on an individual's weight and height.
Marine Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Smith applauded the move. Smith said he has won five Navy achievement medals but has not been promoted since failing the tape test once in 2009. "There's got to be something better for Marines who are working hard but just born like a tree stump," Smith said.
Dr. Michael Pasquale of Aloha Plastic Surgery in Honolulu said his military clientele has jumped by more than 30 percent since 2011, with about a half-dozen service members coming in every month.
"Some see this as unethical but I say, `What? It's liposuction, for God's sake,"' the former soldier said. "They have to worry about their careers. With the military downsizing, it's putting more pressure on these guys."
Some go on crash diets or use weights to beef up their necks so they're in proportion with a larger waist. Pasquale said liposuction works for those with the wrong genetics.
Fitness expert Jordan Moon said there is no reliable, economical way to measure body fat, and troops should be judged more by physical performance so they're not feeling forced to go to such lengths to save their careers.
"We're sending people away who could be amazing soldiers just because of two pieces of tape," said Moon, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology and has studied the accuracy of body fat measurements.
"Ninety percent of athletes who play in the NFL are going to fail the tape test because it's made for a normal population, not big guys," he added.
Jeffrey Stout, a sports science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the tape test describes the body's shape, not its composition, such as the percentage of body fat or the ratio of fat to muscle.
"I wouldn't want my career decided on that," he said.
A more accurate method, he said, would be to use calipers to measure the thickness of skin on three different parts of the body.
"That way these guys are not hurt by a bad measurement," said Stout, who has researched the accuracy of different body composition measurements.
Strength-and-power athletes and those who do a lot of twisting that build up the muscle tissue over the hips would likely fail the Defense Department test, he added.