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Marine veteran Chandler Rand has struggled with a variety of eating disorders since childhood. Although he says he is healthy now, he describes his recovery as an ongoing process. She still has to fight against negative thoughts about her body image and weight.
“It’s basically like a titrope walk,” Rand said.
In 2016, Rand was a Marine. As a teenager he was successfully treated for anorexia, but after boot camp, he started eating too much and became bullying.
“I don’t think I saw it as part of my eating disorder at the time,” Rand says. “I think I saw it as part of being a good Marine.”
To Rand, this means meeting strict military standards for weight and body fat percentage. At the same time, she was dealing with sexual harassment while in college.
He says the attack affected his eating habits.
“You just want to be obsessed with something other than fear and panic or sadness and guilt,” he says. “So you try to place this moral high ground on food and wellness.”
People like Rand, who developed unhealthy eating habits during their service, did not receive much attention from the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs. But a survey by seniors from the Iraq and Afghanistan war era by the VA in Connecticut shows that they experience bulimia almost three times the civilian rate.
Some develop eating disorders while in the military and others jump into eating habits after going out.
“I’ve seen a high rate of undiagnosed eating disorders in the elderly population, but I also wanted to know about these other disorders,” said Robin Masheb, a research psychologist and founder of the Veterans Initiative for Eating and Weight. It is one of the few programs that studies the eating disorders of veterans.
He says the unique risk factors for military service exceed the requirements for strict weights.
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“People talked about being in a very chaotic eating situation where one either had to go for a long time without eating anything, or in certain situations had to eat very fast,” Masaheb said. “Things like this also seem to be a risk factor for setting people up for their eating problems later in life.”
He further added that the elderly victims of sexual harassment are more likely to develop eating disorders.
For Rand, it was all of the above: “I think the military environment, excluding height and weight requirements, could be a perfect storm for eating disorders.”
He says much of military life is based on numbers and rules.
“You’ve scored on your fitness tests and your combat fitness tests, and there’s a point system for behavior and skill and range of rifles,” Rand said. “You always wanted to be in that perfect score range, and so to me, it was just another score I had to fill.”
Masheb’s new research focuses on how VA doctors can screen veterans for eating disorders. He is experimenting with different ways to ask veterans questions about their relationship with food.
“In general, men – and more generally, our elders – are uncomfortable with this language being out of control,” Masheb said. “Being in the military means being in control.”
Masheb received a grant from the Department of Defense to test virtual therapy to help the elderly with eating disorders. But he says they face other challenges, such as dispelling myths that eating disorders occur only in young women or that patients who are overweight may not have eating disorders.
In March, the department released new guidelines that give service groups more leeway to relax restrictions on weights and fitness standards.
Masheb and Rand agree that this is a small step in the right direction. But the guidelines still allow each branch to decide whether they want to rely on the body mass index, a measure that uses height to set weight targets.
Rand says height and weight value don’t matter to him.
“If people see that you don’t have to meet this number, or be less than that number, I don’t think it would put so many people at high risk,” he says. “I think it will ease the mindset.”
This story comes to us WSHU Connecticut, and is produced by Of North Carolina Public Radio American Homefront Project, A public media collaboration that reports on American military life and the elderly. Comes from funds Public Broadcasting Corporation.