Mattis: Shrinking U.S. Military Recruitment Pool 'Reminds Us Why We Need Allies'

Secretary of Defense James Mattis addresses National Guard leaders

Defense Secretary James Mattis told cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., today that American problems with obesity and drug use shrinking the U.S. military recruiting pool "reminds us why we need allies."

Mattis was asked by a cadet during a Q&A session about whether he sees problems in "this technology era where people have very sedentary lifestyle and kids today are coming into the military very out of shape."

The Defense chief called it "a sad state of affairs when 71 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old males in this country cannot qualify to enter the United States Army as a private."

"And that's kind of a baseline, you know. That's a baseline that you've got to be at least, you know, not obese, not using drugs, you know, a high school grad... the Army knows they've got to be the ones who train and bring the young lads and gals up to standard, but they've got to start with something," he said, adding that "if you go back and look at our history, we've needed very large militaries."

"And today, we don't need as large of a military, but we need one big enough. And when are you drawing from only 29 percent at the beginning, only 29 percent is your total recruiting population -- it creates a real problem for us."

Mattis said the problem "reminds us even when we get people in the military, in an increasingly overweight country, an increasingly drug-prone country, we need some of you who are going to be the Spartans of the gate, because we're not going to hang onto these freedoms because our grandfathers fought on the beaches of Normandy or because our fathers fought in Vietnam."

"Every generation, as President Reagan put it, is going to have to fight to keep this experiment alive. It's a big concern to me. I don't know what we can do about it," he continued. "There are retired officers and NCOs, senior NCOs, who are working across the country, in the schools, to try to restore physical education where it's been taken out, to try to get school lunches to be things that fuel the body, instead of just giving them crummy food."

"I don't have a good solution for it.  We go to the Congress with the problem that Congress wants to help. They haven't figured out how to make their programs contribute to a better society, but it's also where we're going to have to have leaders. And for those of you who are not going into the military, don't wait until you have my color hair to run for the school board and get on the school board in your local community."

Mattis said that as "most of America's problems are solved at the local level... that's going to have to be where this one gets solved."

"And there's parts of the country, by the way, that are much more physically fit than other parts of the country, and our recruiters know it and they hone in on those areas," he noted. "But they're not going to be enough, in the long run, if we don't turn this around. And when you look at childhood diabetes, you can see the health risk of what we're doing to the younger generation... get out there and start working with the kids when they're young, because once they've gone over the edge, it's very hard to bring them back."