How far can military go in punishing obese soldiers?

The Pentagon took away bonuses when it kicked out servicemen. Now they're pursuing a class-action suit.

Ryan Mumme was born into a military family and planned to make a career from his job as a nuclear technician on a Navy submarine.

But in 1998, he received some surprising news - not only would he be kicked out of the military for being overweight, but he would have to pay back his enlistment bonus of nearly $8,000.

That was a problem for Mr. Mumme, who had already spent the money on a new car, and who suddenly was faced with unemployment. Pretty soon he had a collection agency on his back - and the Internal Revenue Service.

"He became despondent and disillusioned," says his father. "It took about six months for him to get back on his feet."

Mumme is one of at least 20,000 servicemen and -women kicked out of the military and ordered to pay back their signing bonuses in the last decade.

Under a federal ruling handed down last week, they'll be able to sue the Pentagon in a class-action lawsuit to recover damages. The suit does not contest the right of the Pentagon to use weight as an employment criterion. But those who are joining the legal action say that revoking paid bonuses is unfair - and a step too far.

"[The Pentagon] hasn't been very nice about collecting these bonuses," says Michael Feldman, the Brunswick, Maine, lawyer who initiated the suit with Mumme as his first client. "This shows the Department of Defense has to follow the law just like everyone else."

According to Mr. Feldman, as many as 30,000 former servicemen could join the suit. The lost bonuses that they would seek to have returned range from $5,000 to $10,000. One former sailor, Charles Wiggins, of Canandaigua, N.Y., is trying to get back $13,262.

The military's weight requirements existed before the 1990s, but during the past decade, the standards have risen, and enforcement has become more strict.

Today, each branch has its own requirements, based on body-fat percentage. The Army, for example, allows body fat ranging from 20 to 26 percent, depending on age, for men, and 30 to 36 percent for women. But overall, the services are becoming less strict at a time when the Pentagon is struggling to meet its congressionally mandated personnel numbers.

The Navy, which has one of the more severe recruiting and retention problems, currently has a moratorium on discharging sailors because of weight. Instead, they require overweight sailors to get extra training and, if necessary, nutrition and weight-management counseling. If someone continues to fail weight or fitness tests, they can be denied promotion.

In the past, sailors have been given fitness tests every six months and were discharged if they failed three in a four-year period. Sailors could be failed even if they passed all the physical tests - push-ups, sit-ups, and running or swimming - but were overweight.

The courts have established "that the military can decide its standards, even if it sounds unfair," says Feldman.

Yet many of those who were discharged say that ongoing personnel trends and particular assignments have meant that rules are inconsistently applied. (Neither the Pentagon nor the Justice Department immediately returned calls about the case.)

Bill Torrance, a former Navy sound technician, was discharged in 1997 for being 10 pounds overweight. He was 6 feet, 2 inches and 221 pounds at the time. He says that one of the reasons he was probably kicked out is that he was in a retraining program at the time - rather than on a submarine assignment, where he would have been more difficult to replace.

After he got the boot, he had to pay back $4,000 in bonus money. A husband and father of three children, he was unemployed for six months before finding a job with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

"I can understand that there needs to be weight requirements for some jobs if they're highly physical," he says. "But my job was to sit in front of a sonar screen for six hours a day."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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