Maj. Gen. 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, over the past four years 47,447 potential recruits flunked induction physicals at the nation's 35 Military Entrance Processing Stations because they were overweight.
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 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 find 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, Ariz., 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 opened in August, and 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.
The prep school is housed in several one- and two-story buildings on a small part of this sprawling training installation. The classrooms and living quarters are Spartan. GED candidates wear Army uniforms, exercise before breakfast and study under the guidance of enlisted officers. They do not mix or conduct weapons training with soldiers participating in the nine weeks of basic training maneuvers elsewhere on the fort.
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.
"It took them 18 years to get to where they are at, so it's very difficult for them to lose the kind of weight that they need to on their own," said Bostick, who did not provide any timing for when his idea might reach fruition, nor any projection of its potential cost.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former Pentagon chief of personnel during the Reagan administration, said the Army has to fight even harder than the other service branches to get the recruits they need.
"The Army has a tough time recruiting as compared to the other services," said Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. He said the burden for fighting an unpopular war in Iraq has fallen primarily on the military's largest service.
"They are doing this because they are desperate," Korb said.
Recruiters echo Bostick's worries about weight issues among potential candidates for the military.
"I'd say that out of every 10 applicants that come in, probably three we couldn't take - they are obese," said Sgt. Darryl Bogan, a recruiter in Columbia. An additional 20 percent to 30 percent of recruits are slightly overweight, but some can get the weight off, Bogan said.
"We are getting heavier as a nation as far as our young people are concerned," Bogan said.
Besides basic weight and height guidelines, Bogan said the Army uses body fat percentages and an aerobics test to determine whether recruits can withstand the rigors of basic training. Recruits must step up and down on a riser at a certain rate per minute, then perform some push-ups and sit-ups and have their heart rates measured.
One of Bogan's recruits, 18-year-old Idalia Halley, was shocked when she found she was a few pounds too heavy to enter boot camp.
"My mom was like, 'You better come run with me,"' Halley recalled, saying it took several weeks of healthy eating and runs with her Army-veteran mom to finally get into the service.
On her second try, Halley said she weighed in at 162 pounds and logged a 30 percent rate of body fat to meet the Army's standard.
Toting her M-16 during weapons exercises in basic training, Halley said she'd slimmed down even more in the first weeks of training.
"I know I've lost some weight because I have to pull my pants up tighter," the Army private said. "And besides, I don't think the food's all that great - except breakfast."