Blog | October 30, 2017

Papa’s Picture

Reflections on event exploring why young Americans unable to join military

David S. Kass

By David S. Kass, President, Council for a Strong America

I have a photograph of my Papa, my grandfather, in his Army uniform when he was 96 years old.

His eyes are resolute with pride. Pride that he still fits in his uniform. Pride that he served to protect our freedom in what he always said was “the greatest nation on earth.”

Photo of Harold "Papa" Kass

My grandfather lived until age 98 – a long and successful life. I thought about what Papa might’ve thought if he were sitting with me in the audience at the recent panel co-hosted by The Heritage Foundation and Council for a Strong America’s national security group, Mission: Readiness. The issue? Our youth and their lack of military readiness.

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Tom Spoehr, Director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, as well as a Mission: Readiness member, served as moderator of the panel. General Spoehr introduced the discussion by sharing, “Often overlooked in all these discussions that typically revolve around money and systems is the single most important ingredient to readiness - the man or woman who makes it all possible - the Sailor, Soldier, Marine or Airman.“

One panelist, Major General Jeffrey Snow, the head of recruiting for the U.S. Army, highlighted the Department of Defense’s finding that 71% of Americans age 17-24 can’t join the military because of poor fitness, lack of a high school diploma, or trouble with the law.

My Papa, who exercised almost every day of his life and rode his exercycle in the basement of his suburban Chicago home into his 90s, would’ve been horrified to hear that one sixth of young people are obese.

Another panelist, Major General Malcolm Frost, the head of the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training, said an “existential threat” to the United States is ensuring enough people can serve in the military. Today’s high-tech military is clearly not the military of Papa’s generation. Today’s military needs educated, physically fit men and women to use sophisticated weaponry and address our world’s complex challenges.

Another panelist, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Mick Bednarek, one of the more than 700 retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness, gave the unvarnished truth: “We have to get up off our backsides and get healthy.” He said we can’t continue having 80 percent of high schools with no fitness requirements to graduate.

My Papa, who exercised almost every day of his life and rode his exercycle in the basement of his suburban Chicago home into his 90s, would’ve been horrified to hear that one sixth of young people are obese.

These problems mean the military must go to extraordinary lengths to attract recruits from a small pool – the same pool from which private industry recruits.

General Snow detailed the challenges the Army faces: although the Army employs 9,000 recruiters, this is barely enough to recruit the 80,000 new soldiers that the Army needs. “By the time we get so many young people, it’s too late,” he said. They simply aren’t in good enough physical shape and need too much remedial education to wear the uniform.

General Bednarek summed up the problem: “It’s not an Army problem, it’s not a joint [Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine/Coast Guard] problem – it’s a national security problem.”

I would’ve asked [Papa] what he thought about General Bednarek’s three solutions to the problem – kids getting better physical activity, nutrition, and early education. He would’ve told me he thought those were important – so everyone can also have the American Dream.

The panelists were all clear on the problem. General Bednarek told us the solution. “There are three critical parts,” he said. We need to improve education “and it starts with early education.” Early childhood helps kids succeed in school and in life. Second, we need healthier school nutrition so kids learn healthy eating. Third, physical fitness. There must be more physical education in schools so that physical activity becomes a lifelong habit.

Congressman Don Bacon (R-NE), a retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General and Mission: Readiness member who gave opening remarks at the event, said he was amazed during his military service at the selfless nature of the people in the military where people volunteer to be in 120-degree heat in Iraq to drive convoys over roads full of IEDs.

Listening to the Congressman, Papa would’ve nodded in agreement. Deep in his gut, my grandfather understood why people would do anything for this country – his country.

I remember the last time he visited me in DC when he was still healthy. He talked about his sense of awe and gratitude to America which gave him everything. Where a boy could arrive at the age of eight from a shtetl in Poland, and, speaking no English, work hard to become a successful doctor.

After the applause died down after the last speaker, Papa might’ve turned to me and said how much he enjoyed the panel. He might’ve regaled me with a few stories about serving in the Pacific during World War II. I probably would’ve asked him what he thought about General Bednarek’s three solutions to the problem – kids getting better physical activity, nutrition, and early education.

He would’ve told me he thought those were important – so everyone can also have the American Dream.

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David S. Kass

President