Liposuction, Laxatives: Military Struggles to Make Weight

Servicemembers turn to unnatural and dangerous methods to pass standards.

December 14, 2010, 6:12 PM

Dec. 15, 2010— -- Like many in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gunnery Sgt. Torres, 34, looks like the model of a great build. For 15 years, his career has been defined by ruck marches, long runs, and physical demands of deployment. And for many years Torres body built to keep up his strength.

After all, he is among the so-called few and proud.

"I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but I've been the best at almost anything I've done," said Torres.

Anything, that is, except for remaining within the Corps' regulation weight standards.

Under the Marines height and weight protocol, Torres, who stands five feet six inches tall, is required to weigh less than 170 pounds. Torres says he's around 178 pounds, mostly because of his muscle build. But that's not a good enough reason for the Marines, said Torres.

"Your career could be on the line if you don't make weight," said Torres, adding that he's always struggled to stay within the limits. "So you'll go through extremes if you don't make weight."

Although most marines look physically fit, many crash diet, and some resort to starving before physical tests, so they can meet the weight standards. Appetite suppressants, laxatives, and other supplements run rampant within the military.

A 2009 study by officers at the Naval Post Graduate School found that nearly one in three Marines turned to excessive and at times unhealthy methods to meet the weight standards.

In fact, Torres is now considering liposuction, a procedure which is becoming an increasing trend in the military.

Servicemembers in every military branch undergo routine physical fitness tests and are measured for regulation height and weight standards. If they fail height and weight standards, the circumference of their neck and midsection are tape measured for body fat percentage – a process known as 'making tape.'

Dr. Robert Peterson, a plastic surgeon who runs Athena Clinic in Honolulu, estimated nearly three-fourths of about 50 servicemembers he consults ask for liposuction specifically so they can make tape.

"Liposuction is not going to make difference on the weight, just on the tape measurement. It takes off inches in the middle, between the skin and stomach muscle, and gives you a more favorable ratio," said Peterson.

According to Peterson, for many, only about two or three pounds need to be taken from the midsection to accomplish the tape circumference standards.

"It's not the amount of weight but where the weight is that'll make the difference," said Peterson. "If they're active duty military, they're usually healthy. And if you don't take out a lot of fat, liposuction is incredibly safe."

While the military offers naturally healthier and less costly ways to drop the extra pounds, some fear the ultimate cost of their career.

When servicemembers fail to meet tape standards, many are sent through a strict lifestyle regimen called a body composition program, or BCP. But according to many in the military, BCP is considered a symbol of failure.

According to Torres, promotion boards many times overlook those who have a record of going through BCP. And failing the program can end military careers.

"You have a better chance at recovering from a DUI than being on BCP," said Torres.

Torres is scheduled to be evaluated for a promotion early 2011.

"Even though I technically look within standards, they will see I'm over my max [weight]," he said. "They will always prefer others over me."

He said like other marines he's "done it all" to lose the remaining few pounds. He said he's taken supplements, and tried almost every diet. He's worked out in a plastic suit atop his clothes to sweat out the weight. But all to no avail.

And these practices are no different among other military branches. The Military Times has reported extreme weight loss practices within both the Army and Air Force as well.

"It's hard on our training staff because we want to get them there the healthy way. But we do know that there are short cuts," said Christi Lee, lead trainer for the Marine Corp base in Quantico, Va., who heads a body composition program.

Lee said starvation and laxatives are the two most common unhealthy methods she's seen among Marines. While Lee said BCP has worked for most Marines placed in the program, she agreed some fear they'll be judged by their comrades and command.

"Some don't like the fact that the command is looking over them," she said. "They don't want to be singled out by command."

Liposuction costs about $3,000 out of pocket. But for many, the cost could mean a final promotion and a higher retirement pay.

"The most common are those who are just about to make 20 years and need to push for retirement benefits. That's the only people for whom it makes economic sense," said Peterson. "We don't see people who just signed up or those who are in for 21 years."

Peterson's website advertises cosmetic procedures directly to the military, offering servicemembers a $500 discount on their first liposuction procedure. His site even includes testimonials for liposuction and other cosmetic procedures.

In fact, liposuction is beccoming such an appealing option that Peterson named a couple other specialists that advertise specifically to the military community.

"From the marine's perspective it's a perfect reasonable thing to do and a good investment," said Peterson.

Methods such as skin folds or underwater measurements are a more accurate assessment of body fat percentage, but taping seems the fastest and most cost efficient method to weigh-in.

"It's well motivated but it doesn't work for a subgroup of people," said James Sanborn, managing editor of the Marine Corps Times, who first reported the trend.

According to Sanborn, the military offered some leeway to height and weight standards barring an exceptional performance on a physical test. But since an increase in recruitment rates in 2008, the military has tightened up the taping standards.

And according to Lee, those with increased muscle weight have suffered the consequences.

"They can be the strongest, fastest person you've ever seen, but they're body composition might be different. They may have muscles in different region," said Lee.

Torres, who most recently served in Iraq, said while the standards remain stringent on the homefront, the numbers don't mean a thing during deployments. All the more reason to judge ability over appearance, he said.

"I'd rather serve with someone who could carry me out of a fire fight than someone who can't carry their own pack," said Torres.

Until the mode of measurement or the standards change, many in the military may continue unnatural and sometimes dangerous practices to lose weight, he said.

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