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Early education, good food, exercise vital for armed forces

| Monday, Aug. 16, 2010

Getting 3- and 4-year-old children on the right path is even more important than almost anyone thought.

Good grades• Good behavior• Eating right and exercising• All matters of national security.

At least 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service because of factors such as criminal records, poor academics and shabby physical fitness, Pentagon officials say. Among Pittsburghers, 80 percent to 90 percent don't qualify.

"It's crucial for those of us in national security to convey the importance of early-childhood and nutrition education to meet our national security needs," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Michael Dunn, associate chief of UPMC's gastroenterology division.

Still, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all met their active-service recruiting goals in June, the most recent data available.

"It's a true statement that fewer than three out of 10 of our nation's 17- to 24-year-olds are fully qualified for military enlistment," said S. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. "It's also true that we're meeting our population targets."

The Army achieved its active- and Reserve-recruitment goals for the past three years and is poised to reach them in 2010, too, Smith said.

"The bad economy is helping," he said.

Historically, a 1 percent increase in unemployment yields a 0.06 percent increase in Army recruiting, Smith said. "But we're going to have to deal with the problems ... when the economy comes back."

About 150 generals and admirals, including Dunn, lead the Washington-based nonprofit Mission: Readiness, founded two years ago to advocate for more and better funding of early-childhood and nutrition-education programs.

"The data are overwhelming that show quality early-childhood programs ensure kids enter school ready to learn and place them on a trajectory for success while helping them avoid the pitfalls of juvenile crime and violence," said Stephen Doster, the organization's director in Pennsylvania. "Ensuring that public schools serve children nutritious meals and educate them about proper nutrition and exercise is a first step in the fight against childhood obesity."

A 2004 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy concluded that public investment in early-childhood education for lower-income families and home visits to low-income, first-time single mothers resulted in higher test scores, lower crime rates and lower rates of child abuse and neglect.

"We did a formal statistical analysis to determine whether investments in certain childhood programs paid off for taxpayers," said Steve Aos, the institute's director and the report's lead author.

Aos emphasized, however, that lawmakers must use discretion when choosing what to fund.

"Not all early-childhood programs are good," he said. "Some are terrific and some aren't."

High-quality programs feature student-teacher ratios of no more than 8-to-1 or 10-to-1; activities that encourage large-motor-skill development such as outside play and fine-motor-skill development such as activities with crayons or scissors; and social-and-emotional-skill building such as learning about taking turns, said Michele Figlar, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children in Squirrel Hill.

Solid early-childhood programs save taxpayers money on services such as remedial education, mental-health therapy and drug and alcohol treatment later in life, said Marcia Walters, executive director of Hilltop Community Children's Center in Knoxville.

"Ninety percent of a child's capacity to learn is fixed by 5 years of age," Walters said. "That's not just cognitive abilities either. It's social and emotional skills as well."

Such statistics are among the reasons retired Pennsylvania National Guard Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Perugino joined Mission: Readiness.

"What we do with today's preschool children will be a principal part of the future of our national defense," he said.

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