Patricia Hynes: Youth, gun control and the Pentagon

GREENFIELD — To my astonishment, I began receiving daily news updates from the Pentagon, innocuously named the Early Bird Brief, for about a month now. Here is one particularly perverse news brief.

The number of out-of shape and unfit youth is an imminent national security crisis, not because young people matter for themselves, but because they are "too fat to fight," as one commentator put it. According to a report done for the Pentagon, 7 of 10, or more than 24 million Americans between the ages of are 17 and 24, are not qualified or eligible to join the military because of inadequate education, overweight, poor health and criminal records.

Let's dig more deeply, into this in the light of evidence that our government cares more about fitness for war and the unhindered flow of guns here and abroad than for the health and well being of our children.

Education: The U.S. high school graduation rate, which ranges from 66-94 percent by state and District of Columbia in 2015, ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrial countries. A recent international study found that Americans with a high school diploma had math skills equivalent to those of high school dropouts in other comparable countries. Our students fell significantly below international students in literacy skills and scored last in technology skills.

Physical activity: Nationally, almost 1 in 3 youth between ages 10 and 17 are overweight or obese. Recent national surveys find that high school students are spending more recreational time on computers, watching less television and getting little physical exercise.

Nutrition: Unhealthy foods are heavily marketed to children, according to national reports on child obesity. One in 5 U.S. children (more than 15 million) live in poverty and "food-insecure" households, having limited access to adequate food and nutrition due to cost and local availability. Most low-income children live in low-income neighborhoods; and they are much more likely to be overweight or obese given limited access to sidewalks, safe parks, recreation centers and quality food stores.

Health: One in 8 U.S. children and teens had a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2011, an increase of 43 percent since 2003. This condition can cause learning setbacks and behavioral difficulties and result in excessive medication of children.

The percentage of U.S. children with asthma doubled in the 1980s and 1990s and has been increasing steadily since then, though not so dramatically. The reason for the increase is little understood; but possible factors include exposure to secondhand smoke, obesity, poor housing (mold, mildew, infestation), air pollution and children's immune systems failing to develop properly.

Asthma is the primary reason that children miss school — and thus, a real setback in learning. The Pentagon's concern: asthmatic youth are "too sick to serve."

Crime: The Mapping Police Violence site has correlated the impact of police in schools with the criminalization of youth. Over the past two decades, 10,000 police have been stationed in schools. In that same period, there has been no impact on violence in schools. Yet, one million students have been arrested, with black students much more likely to be arrested than white students, for behavior that prior to police presence warranted detention or suspension.

So what's the remedy, according to the Pentagon, for their shortage of recruits? Improve education, nutrition, and physical exercise; reduce youth crime and drug use. But doesn't it border on insanity to have the military, among all the federal agencies, recognize this youth crisis when their mission is to arm young people and send them to war where many will come back with brain injuries and traumatized with PTSD?

Further, where will the funding for improved education, nutrition, physical exercise and crime reduction come from, given our federal budget loots education, health, environment and housing while expanding military spending? The recent 2018 Congressional budget deal allots 54 percent of the discretionary budget to the military and 5 percent each to education, housing and health. Trump's 2019 budget request lards the defense budget even more while reducing education by 14 percent, health by 26 percent, housing and community programs by 35 percent, and energy and environment by 36 percent when compared to the 2017 budget. Some might call this psychotic, or more politely, cognitive dissonance.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to address childhood obesity and lack of exercise has not been sustained by the Trump administration. As of December 2017, no new directors had been appointed to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Further, Trump's 2019 budget, which is a massive entitlement program for the Pentagon, proposes eliminating 14 environmental programs, among them ones that worsen air pollution and the indoor environment of low-income homes — triggers for asthma and poor lung function.

The youth of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who confronted U.S. Senator Marco Rubio on lack of federal gun control; the Maryland and Virginia high school youth who held a demonstration and die-in for gun control in front of the White House and U.S. Capitol; and the students across the country organizing March for Our Lives on March 24 are the wise ones. Soon, as they have said, they will vote; and then they will run for office. And they, hopefully, will finally extract the rotten roots of this country awash in war and weapons' peddling abroad; and military-style weapons, gun violence and school-to-prison pipelines at home.

Support them, join them on March 24 in your local community.

Patricia Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts


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