'Pork chop' troops use liposuction to pass body fat test
SAN DIEGO — Soldiers often call plastic surgeon Adam Tattelbaum in a panic. They need liposuction — fast.
Some in the military are turning to the surgical procedure to remove excess fat from their waists in a desperate attempt to pass the Pentagon's body fat test, which relies on measurements of the neck and waist and can determine their prospects.
“They come in panicked about being kicked out or getting a demerit that will hurt their chances at a promotion,” the Rockville, Md., surgeon said.
Service members complain that the Defense Department's method of estimating body fat weeds out not just flabby physiques but bulkier, muscular builds.
Fitness experts agree and have joined the calls for the military's fitness standards to be revamped. They say the Pentagon's weight tables are outdated and do not reflect that Americans are now bigger, though not necessarily less healthy.
Defense officials say the test ensures troops are ready for the rigors of combat. The military does not condone surgically altering one's body to pass the test, but liposuction is not banned.
The Pentagon insists that only a small fraction of service members who exceed body fat limits perform well on fitness tests.
“We want everybody to succeed,” said Bill Moore, director of the Navy's Physical Readiness Program. “This isn't an organization that trains them and says, ‘Hey, get the heck out.' ” The Defense Department's “tape test” uses neck and waist measurements rather than the body mass index, a system based on an individual's height and weight.
Those who fail the tape test are ordered to spend months in a vigorous exercise and nutrition program, which Marines have nicknamed the “pork chop platoon” or “doughnut brigade.”
Failing the test once can halt promotions for years, service members say. Failing three times can be grounds for getting kicked out.
The number of soldiers booted for being overweight has jumped tenfold in the past five years from 168 in 2008 to 1,815. In the Marines, the figure nearly doubled from 102 in 2010 to 186 in 2011 but dropped to 132 last year. The Air Force and the Navy do not track tape-test discharges.
Service members feel they are under intense scrutiny as the military trims its ranks because of budget cuts and the end of the Afghan war.
Dr. Michael Pasquale of Aloha Plastic Surgery in Honolulu said his military clientele has jumped by more than 30 percent since 2011, with about a half-dozen service members coming in every month.
“They have to worry about their careers,” the former soldier said. “With the military downsizing, it's putting more pressure on these guys.”
Military insurance covers liposuction only if it is deemed medically necessary, which wouldn't cover any procedure to pass the test. Lipo can cost more than $6,000.
Some service members go on crash diets or use weights to beef up their necks so they're in proportion with a larger waist. Pasquale said lipo works for those with the wrong genes.
“I've actually had commanders recommend it to their troops,” Pasquale said. “They'll deny that if you ask them. But they know some people are in really good shape and unfortunately are just built wrong.”
Jeffrey Stout, a sports science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the tape test describes the body's shape, not its composition, such as the percentage of body fat or the ratio of fat to muscle.
“I wouldn't want my career decided on that,” he said.
Marine Staff Sgt. Leonard Langston, 47, blames himself for weighing 4 pounds over his maximum weight of 174 pounds for his 5-foot-7 frame.
“Especially the older Marines have let things go,” he said.