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Army seeks to slim recruits

Thousands found to be too heavy

By Susanne M. Schafer
Associated Press / January 13, 2009
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FORT JACKSON, S.C. - The Army has been dismissing so many overweight applicants that its top recruiter, trying to keep troop numbers up in wartime, is considering starting a slim-down camp to transform chubby trainees into svelte soldiers.

Major General Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Recruiting Command, said he wants to see a formal diet and fitness regimen running alongside a new school at Fort Jackson that helps aspiring troops earn their GEDs.

Bostick told the Associated Press that obesity looms as "a bigger challenge for us in the years ahead" than any other problem that keeps young people from entering the military, including lack of a GED or high school diploma, misconduct or criminal behavior and other health issues, such as eye or ear problems.

According to Defense Department figures provided to the AP, 47,447 potential recruits over the past four years flunked induction physicals at the nation's 35 Military Entrance Processing Stations.

That is a fraction of the 205,902 such exams given in 2005 and 250,764 in 2008, but still amounts to a hefty number and comes at a time when the military is more interested than ever in gaining recruits. The Army and Marine Corps together paid more than $600 million over the past year in bonuses and other financial incentives to attract volunteers.

While the services have reported exceeding their recruiting goals in the past year, the Pentagon remains under pressure to bring in a constant flow of recruits. The Defense Department has announced plans to boost the active-duty Army by 65,000, to a total of 547,000 soldiers by next year, and grow the Marines from 175,000 to 202,000 by 2011.

Obesity afflicts recruits for other physically demanding jobs, including firefighters. Deputy Chief Ed Nied, chair of the safety, health and survival section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said fire departments are also making a major push to encourage better fitness among young people who want to join.

"We draw from the same exact population that they [the military] draw from," Nied said from his Tucson headquarters. "This comes from a lack of physical education in the high schools."

In an interview during a visit to the Army's largest training installation, Bostick said a slim-down camp could be part of the new Army Prep School at Fort Jackson, S.C. The school gives recruits who didn't graduate from high school the chance to earn a GED before starting their nine weeks of basic training.

"We are looking at the Army Prep School as a place where we might send some [recruits] that have weight issues," the two-star general said.

Bostick argues that many of the young people who want to join the Army have a hard time understanding a healthy diet and the importance of daily exercise, but could get within the military limits with guidance.

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