Nearly $363 million has been spent on bariatric surgery by the military in 10 years, and recruiters throughout metro Atlanta told undercover Channel 2 producers the military is willing to pay for even more.
Taxpayers fund Tricare, the health insurance for the military, which covered a $50,000 gastric bypass surgery for Jillian O'Malley, an Army wife at Georgia's Fort Stewart. Three years ago, she weighed nearly 300 pounds at 26, but now she is a triathlete.
O’Malley lost 140 pounds and said the money for her surgery was well spent.
"It gave me my life back, the life I was supposed to have," she said.
Military brass in Georgia wouldn't talk to Channel 2, but Army officials told sister station KIRO that spending money on weight loss surgery actually saves taxpayers the money of treating obesity-related diseases like Type II diabetes and hypertension.
“And if they don't stay in the military system, they're going to end up on Medicare or Medicaid. We're going to pay for it somewhere," said Lt. Col. Tim Sebesta.
A Channel 2 investigation uncovered Army recruiters admitting the U.S. military will pay for cosmetic surgery, including breast implants.
“It's one cosmetic per enlistment, so let’s say you need to get your breasts done, you want to get big boobies, you can get that done,” a recruiter told an undercover Channel 2 producer.
Some officers even explained how to get around the Army's requirement that surgery be medically necessary. One recruiter mentioned a woman who was able to get plastic surgery by citing depression.
“She said she was depressed and it was because she had a low self-image,” the recruiter said.
But a health expert told Channel 2’s John Bachman plastic surgery is not the answer.
“They need psychotherapy or some other kind of help,” said Diana Zickerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families. “To encourage them to lie about being depressed in order to get plastic surgery also raises a lot of red flags.”
Some officers were more honest about their policy, saying the Army has cut back on cosmetic surgeries.
“The Army is actually cracking down on that: nose jobs, probably not going to happen,” one recruiter said.
Now, a taxpayer watchdog group is calling for the taxpayer money to be spent on recovering veterans.
“This is real money that could go to help veterans with very serious combat injuries or mental or emotional health counseling to make the transition to post service life,” said Pete Sepp, of the National Taxpayers Union.
Dr. Robert Richard defended the gastric bypass programs he started while he was in the Army.
"Most bariatric patients will recoup the cost of their surgery with decreased health care expenditures in two to three years," Richard said.
Sepp said if that's the case, the military needs to keep track of patients after surgery and make those results available to taxpayers.
"If it turns out these are long-term money savers, great," Sepp said. "But we need the evidence to back that up."