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Obesity Stresses Going the Extra Mile to Join the Army

Jeffrey Morgan, 24, poses before and after his weight loss to join the U.S. Army hspace=4

Nearly every day, Army recruiters say someone like Jeffrey Morgan walks into their office: "The recruiter said 'What can I help you with today?' And I told him, flat out, 'I wanna sign up,'" remembers Morgan. "And he said 'Well, uh, first thing you need to do? Lose weight.'" 

At 5'10" and 274 pounds, Morgan, wasn't exactly surprised to hear he needed to lose at least 70 pounds before the Army would take him. "Oh no, I mean I was always the fat kid. And I was a happy guy," says Morgan. "I'd come home from work. Drink probably about a 12 pack of beer, hang out with the boys and play Xbox."

Morgan heard the bad news from Sergeant Loren Smith, his recruiter in Kannapolis. "The weight thing, that was all that was stopping him from joining the Army," says Smith. "Other than that, he was exceptionally qualified."

Recruiters like Sergeant Smith say they run into this problem almost daily. Last year nearly 12,000 recruits failed the military physical because they weighed too much -- which doesn't seem like a lot when you consider the 250,000 who did pass. The Department of Defense estimates as many as one-third of military-age youth are ineligible for service because of their weight. It's become such a concern that Dr. Curtis Gilroy - a senior military personnel official- raised it at a recent congressional hearing: "We have a declining pool of eligible and qualified young people in America today who want to serve," said Gilroy. "We have an obesity problem amongst our youth."

And actually, what the Army considers overweight is more lenient than federal health guidelines. Yet recruiters say most people will give up their military plans rather than lose the weight. So when Sergeant Smith told Jeffrey Morgan to drop 70 pounds, he thought he'd never see him again. But Morgan was unusually motivated, thanks to what he calls his "epiphany."

It happened in his usual spot - on the couch - after work: "A documentary on HBO came on and it was about army recruiters and how much trouble people were having to get people to enlist," says Morgan. "And I'm sitting here on the couch, watching the TV, I'm like there's something that I can do. I sitting here not doing anything. It's time for me to take a stand and do something that's right."

That's when he stopped drinking beer and start using his Xbox to play exercise DVDs instead of video games. Three months later, he rang Sergeant Smith. "I told him that I've lost my weight," says Morgan. "And when I hit that door, their jaws dropped." A couple of the recruiters didn't even recognize him, because they usually have to be a lot more involved in helping a candidate lose weight. It's a fine line, because technically the Army won't allow recruiters to give weight loss advice. But they also have recruitment goals to meet. So a lot of times recruiters take on the role of personal trainer and motivator.

Sergeant Smith has led many a potential recruit on early morning runs and he says it's not an ideal set-up. "You know, I don't have the time to put massive amounts of physical training into this guy so he can lose the weight," says Smith. "So maybe if they had a program that hey if you're in this range, you can go to this boot camp to let people lose weight. Maybe the army could look at that."

In fact, the Major General over Army Recruiting made that very same suggestion recently. But at the moment, recruiters are left to their own devices. Sergeant Ron Kirk leads a weekly workout in the parking lot outside his recruiting office in Kannapolis. "I like being loud because being loud gets every body pumped up," says Kirk. "They come out every Wednesday. The biggest crowd I ever had was between 25 and 30."

Twenty-year-old Andre McNeely is here with about a dozen other potential recruits, struggling through a series of jumping jacks, sit-ups and push-ups. "I've been working out the past two months trying to get some weight down," says McNeely. "Trying not to drink soft drinks and more water and I've been running everyday." McNeely's got at least 20 pounds to lose for the Army will take him. But he's taking those orders seriously, because the way the economy is right now, he says the Army's the only way he can afford his dream of going to college.