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The Corps is winning its war on plump Marines

Thousands of careers are still at risk

Dec. 2, 2012 - 11:50AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 2, 2012 - 11:50AM  |  
Marines who fail to meet the Corps' body composition standards can be put into the Body Composition Program, which is generally considered a career-killer.
Marines who fail to meet the Corps' body composition standards can be put into the Body Composition Program, which is generally considered a career-killer. (GETTY IMAGES)
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While many Marines enjoy the occassional sweets, the Corps has seen a decrease in the number of Marines assigned to the Body Composition Program, which is meant to bring troops in-line with height and weight standards. (STAFF)


Marines are weighed annually to determine their height-to-weight ratio. If they fall outside the service’s standards, a tape test is administered to measure their neck and waist. That approximates body fat percentage. The Corps uses a sliding scale that dictates acceptable body fat percentages relevant to a Marine’s age. If they’re outside the standard, Marines get a warning and are told to get in shape quickly. If they fail repeated tape tests, they are assigned to the remedial Body Composition Program and join a new unit where their full-time job becomes physical training and learning to maintain a healthy diet. They are given up to six months on the BCP before they are marked as failing. If they are still outside regulations, they are re-enrolled for another six months. After a year, if they still don’t make weight, they are administratively separated.
A year-by-year overview of the BCP and related discharges:
Year       BCP       % of total force       End strength       BCP discharges
2012       6,076       3.1       198,479       132
2011       7,162       3.6       201,499       186
2010       7,284       3.6       202,777       102
2009       4,922       2.4       202,786       41
In fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, 6,076 Marines were assigned to the BCP. Those most at risk, by pay grade:
Pay grade       BCP       Discharged for
failing to meet body standards

E-3       1,439       56
E-4       1,164       18
E-5       1,582       24
E-6       984       11
E-7       380       0
E-8       92       0
E-9       28       0
O-3       30       0
O-4       43       0
W-2       17       0
W-3       10       0
Source: Marine Corps


Like it or not, the Corps is winning its war on overweight Marines. But for thousands who remain at risk of breaching the service's appearance standards, the battle is far from over.

During the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the Corps saw a significant reduction in the number of personnel assigned to its Body Composition Program, the dreaded remedial course that includes fitness and nutritional instruction for Marines so-called "fat bodies" whose height-to-weight ratio doesn't sync with the Corps' definition of squared away. Many consider the BCP a first step to the untimely end of their military careers, an indelible black mark on their personnel record that puts them at a disadvantage come promotion time even if they escape the program. More than 3.1 percent of the active-duty Marine Corps was assigned to the BCP in fiscal 2012, according to new data provided by Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va. That's down from 3.6 percent the two years before.

It's unknown how many teeter on the brink of becoming BCP Marines, though it stands to reason that number is substantial. Since October 2009, more than 20,000 have been assigned to the program, according to Marine Corps statistics. And the threat appears greatest for noncommissioned officers at the front end of their military careers, and for staff NCOs staff sergeants and gunnies closing in on 20 years but hopeful, perhaps, they will continue to move up, prolong their careers and enhance their standing in retirement.

For an organization that puts such emphasis on image, these figures may come as a surprise. Indeed, upon becoming commandant in 2010, Gen. Jim Amos spent his first few months on the job touring bases and air stations across the globe and was startled to observe what seemed like a widespread failure to enforce the Corps' standards. He ordered the Corps' inspector general to make sense of it. In 2011, BCP-related discharges nearly doubled.

Those actually booted from the Corps due to "weight control failure," as the service classifies it, represent only a fraction of the overall number assigned to the BCP. Of the 6,076 assigned to the program in fiscal 2012, 132 were discharged because they couldn't square themselves away, according to the Marine Corps' data. That's down from 186 of 7,162 in 2011.

However, less clear is how a few months in the BCP affects Marines' career prospects. Once they've exceeded the prescribed height-to-weight ratio and failed a tape test, Marines are counseled by their commander. If after several weeks they haven't fallen back into regulations, they can receive formal orders to the BCP and that can haunt them at their next selection board.

Consistently, lance corporals represent the largest group of enlisted Marines in the BCP, followed by sergeants at a critical juncture in their careers especially now, as the service carries out a drawdown of its active-duty force and reduces authorized end strength by approximately 5,000 personnel a year through 2016. In fiscal 2012, 1,582 sergeants were assigned to the program.

At that rank, competition already is fierce to move up. Tighter force controls for sergeants, instituted in anticipation of the drawdown, mean they can't stay past 10 years if they've been passed over twice for promotion to staff sergeant. For some, time in the BCP could end their prospects for serving through to a 20-year retirement.

On the officer side, comparatively few Marines end up in the BCP. Nearly three dozen captains and 43 majors went to the BCP in 2012, according to Marine Corps data.

When the IG conducted surprise weigh-ins throughout the force during the summer of 2011, Amos hoped to learn whether his commanders were taking the appropriate measures with Marines who don't make weight. That investigation determined procedures were being followed, for the most part, according to a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

The units spot-checked across the fleet had slightly more of their Marines outside regulations than assigned to the BCP. At first look it might seem commanders were turning a blind eye and letting some Marines slip through the cracks. But the small gap was encouraging and did not indicate a lack of accountability, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, the Marine spokesman. In reality, the gap was accounted for by Marines who had been flagged as out of standards but not yet formally assigned to the BCP, he said.

While the IG did not identify major problems, officials recommended that Marines' weight be systematically tracked. As a result, height and weight fields were added to all Marines' records in the Marine Corps Total Force System, which is used to track everything from promotions to pay. Officials believe that will make it easier for commanders to hold their Marines accountable.

The other services have refocused attention on fitness as well, and the results have been dramatic. The Army, for instance, which also is in the midst of a drawdown, threw out 968 overweight soldiers in 2011 more than in the previous four years combined. That number topped 1,600 in 2012. The Navy saw fitness-related discharges nearly double from 2011 to 2012. The Air Force has seen a steady surge as well, from about 156 in 2007 to more than 1,300 in 2012.

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