I Was Thrown Out of the Army Under the Old Standards Because I Was Too Fit. The New Standards Are a Step Forward.

August 8, 2023
Army Combat Fitness Test at the Milwaukee Army Reserve Center

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I am a 2013 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was discharged in 2015 for being too fat.

At the academy, I did CrossFit, Zumba and Spin; trained with a marathon runner; trained in boxing, judo and Army Combatives; took classes in mountain biking, snowboarding and lifeguarding; participated in open events that ran the gamut from ruck marching to rock climbing; and was on the intramural combat grappling and wrestling teams. I also aced my fitness tests and required physical classes.

And yet, every year, I was under threat of separation for being too fat, or rather, for being too muscular, because the tape test that was in use at the time didn’t care about body composition but only measured pure size.

I would go on extreme diets of plain yogurt and celery, only drinking four ounces of water every two hours. I went to the post “health store” and spent hundreds of dollars on pills, powders, shakes and cleanses “guaranteed to shed the weight.” The night before tapings, I smeared my stomach and buttocks with hemorrhoid cream and wrapped myself in plastic wrap, slipping self-heating hand warmers in the layers, to dry out the water weight.

Sure, I lost weight. But my fitness test scores suffered, my academics suffered, my personality suffered. I was snappish and stupid, my brain unable to concentrate on anything other than when I could eat next or when I could sleep.

At the time, if a soldier did not make tape, he or she was instantly on the Army Weight Control Program (AWCP) and was required to lose a certain amount of weight or body fat percentage in three months or they would be discharged.

It didn’t matter whether you had 12-pack abs or could lift 100-plus pounds. If your waist measurement was too big, according to the chart, you were fat. It did not matter how well the soldier performed in their tasks or on the fitness test. Even if you scored the maximum (or beyond) points, if you failed tape, you were fat. And if you were fat, you were clearly a worthless, lazy, disgusting slob who had no discipline or self-control.

I tried to make it work. I tried every diet I could, even going so far as to eat only dairy-free, egg-free, meat-free, sugar-free and gluten-free foods. I would get up at 0400 to go to a CrossFit gym, then the company physical fitness at 0600, do a swimming workout on my lunch hour, go running for the AWCP afternoon session, then go home and do several exercise videos to slim and tone my body.

I did graduate from West Point, but then came being an officer.

After only a year, dealing with Military Police Officer Basic and my first (and last) posting to Fort Riley, Kansas, I realized I couldn’t sustain it. As an officer on the AWCP, I was forbidden from duties and activities that did not focus solely on losing weight. I couldn’t even pull gate duty. When you’re on the AWCP, your only job is to lose weight.

We are taught in the Army about our motto: Mission First, People Always.

But at the rate I was going, I would be a detriment to the mission, as I would just be an officer who couldn’t do her job — a hanger-on. And if by some miracle I was put in command, I would be a detriment to my people, because I would always be focusing on myself and not them, which meant their training would suffer.

So I resigned my commission.

My commander of the 977th Military Police Company however, saw fit to ignore my resignation and have me discharged as a Failure to Perform Duty, because when you are discharged for being too fat, you have Failed to Perform your Duty.

I tried to transfer to the Guard or Reserve, so I could at least fulfill my academy obligation. And when I was finally discharged, I went to the recruiting office in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, and tried to join the Guard and Reserves there. When they rejected me, I went to the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the Merchant Marines. All said no.

I finally went to the Marine Corps’ door. It was also a no, but the Marine recruiter took the time to listen to me and pointed me toward resources at the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. He also said that I clearly had been wrongly treated and I should seek legal aid, which I did. I visited the veteran services office at the local VA, where I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder with comorbidities of anxiety and depression, and eventually was granted disability.

For those thinking, “Wow, she was so fat, she got disability!”: I suffered from muscle bruising, strains and sprains due to overexertion in my legs, lower and upper back, shoulders, and neck. I suffered from concussions and fatigue spells (seizures that look like sleeping standing up). I suffered from disordered eating, having learned to only eat “good foods” and to ignore my hunger pangs because “to give in to hunger is to give in to weakness.”

I had to deal with anxiety over eating food, of being seen eating in public, to not feel paranoid about my food choices. In the Army, if you were on the AWCP and someone saw you eating “bad foods,” they would report you to your chain of command.

I had to deal with depression and with feelings of never being good enough; of trying so hard, but being told I was lazy and undisciplined because I ate when I felt hungry; and of being left out of activities, meetings and other events, because fat people didn’t deserve to be social with everyone else.

I have healed enough that I can be active on a smaller scale. When I’m not cycling in the Five Boro Bike Tour, I train in capoeira, a martial art that contains gymnastics, dancing, aerobic fitness, high-intensity interval training, instrument playing, and singing in Brazilian Portuguese.

As of 2023, the U.S. Army has changed its taping standards, used to determine body composition. Before, males were measured by the circumference of their neck and waist. Females were measured by the circumference of their neck waist, and “the greatest protrusion of the gluteal muscle as viewed from the side.”

And while I am glad the service has finally started to listen to soldiers, there are a few things I would prefer to see, such as the body composition standards being abolished so troops are judged only on their fitness test scores.

I want the so-called health-and-wellness stores on posts closed and banned, so soldiers do not feel pressured to buy products that harm them.

The Army Weight Control Program should be abolished, as it encourages disordered eating.

The United States Armed Forces need to put more money into the food in mess halls, so soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Merchant Mariners eat healthy food.

Having the current standard, in which a soldier who fails tape can appeal and, even more important, the tape does not count against someone who scores 80% (540/600) or better on the Army Combat Fitness Test, is a start.

So for those of you in the Army now, remember me and the other soldiers, female and male, who brought this about with our Failures to Perform Duties.

— S.J. Pendergraft is a 2013 graduate of West Point and 2023 graduate of Columbia University. She has been published in Geekd-out.com and Lenny Letter and is an associate editor for Kaleidocast: An Audio Literary Magazine by the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers.

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