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Aspiring soldiers, Army recruiters battle the obesity bulge

By REBECCA BURYLO | Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser (TNS) | Published: June 3, 2015

(Tribune Content Agency) — Weighing almost 400 pounds, Grey Gardner's chances of joining the Army seemed out of the question.

As the nation's obesity epidemic continues to grow, those able to join the military continues to shrink.

Gardner refused to let his weight dictate his life. Dropping 150 pounds in 18 months, Gardner is now on his way to boot camp with the Army in Mobile, Ala., thanks to the help of local recruiters.

The fitness future of the Army is declining, according to Capt. Vernon Williams, the Montgomery (Ala.) Army Recruiting Company commander. Williams is getting the word out on how the Army is helping those like Gardner lose the weight and join the service.

Almost one in three young adults are too heavy to serve with overall ineligibility above 70 percent in most states, according to the latest data report issued by Mission: Readiness, a national security organization led by retired Alabama military leaders.

Problem worse in Alabama

In Montgomery County, the obesity rate jumped from 25 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2011.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 18 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese and 21 percent of those ages 12 to 19 are obese. Alabama  is the third worst state in the nation for recruiting efforts.

Even within active-duty military, there has been a 61 percent rise in obesity since 2002 and more than $1.5 billion is paid for obesity-related health care costs, according to the Mission: Readiness report, "Retreat is Not an Option for Alabama." In 2012, the Army dismissed 3,000 soldiers, and the Navy and the Air Force dismissed 1,300 servicemembers each.

Williams and others at recruiting stations are challenged by who they can sign up based upon the Army's stringent height and weight requirements.

Even if an applicant does not meet their proportioned height and weight, they must have less than 24 percent body fat.

Williams is looking for the fittest people he can find.

"Being physically fit is absolutely vital," Williams said. "It's everything that we do. When a person joins the military, they understand the environment that we're in today. The army has been at war for the last 13 years so everyone has to be physically fit and ready to take up arms and fight and win our nation's wars."

Man lost 150 pounds to enlist

Gardner was willing and determined to take up arms for his country. He weighed 380 pounds when he walked into an Army recruiter's office in Mobile a year and a half ago. Soldiers there got him on track to start shedding the pounds.

"I just wanted to serve my county," Gardner said. "It's been in my family ever since my family escaped communism in Russia. Every male has served in the military and loves this country, has fought and bled for it, and I wanted to do my part."

After walking into their Mobile office, a recruiter advised Gardner the weight he would have to obtain to be considered for enlistment. They showed him ways to lose the weight, tips on nutrition, running and different exercises.

It was not easy, but with the help of his family and supporters at the recruiting office, Gardner lost 150 pounds and was able to enlist in May.

"I found out what was required of me, and I took it from there. I didn't take any supplements, I didn't have a trainer. I just got up and did it all on my own," Gardner said. "I hit plateaus like (in) any weight loss, but it was more than just wanting to be a soldier."

He wanted to live.

"Being 380 pounds, my life expectancy was very short," Gardner said. "I knew that if I didn't make a change, I probably wasn't going to live long. That kept me pushing, pushing myself harder, to run faster, to do more pushups and keep going."

Gardner ate a high protein, low carb diet and kept up with a cardio intense workout including suicide sprints, mile runs and cross-training exercises.

The Future Soldier program

Williams said Gardner can now enroll in the Future Soldier program at the recruiter's office to continue his enlisted health-and-fitness training.

"Individuals in the Future Soldier program are assigned a future soldier leader and twice a week, they will come out and be given PT (physical tests) ... pushups, situps and run — the program is rigorous and designed to get those applicants ready for basic training," Williams said.

Tessa Clevenger, 18, is another recruit who lost weight before enlisting and is now in shape to take part in the Future Soldier program. She said she couldn't have done it without her recruiters.

"When I first came into the office, I was 7 pounds over my weight and height requirement. I was finishing my junior year and was thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Clevenger said.

After an Army recruiter visited Clevenger's class at Prattville High School last year, Clevenger was hooked.

"Everything he said started clicking and made sense, and I could see myself doing that," Clevenger said. "I decided if I wanted to have a future in this, I had to lose the weight. It was what I needed to do. What better way to better myself than to serve my country?"

She was 156 pounds and came from a naturally large family, Clevenger said. She began to change her diet, and so did her family. They were behind her all the way.

"The support system I have through the military, I wouldn't have been able to lose it and keep it gone if it wasn't for them. They really cared," Clevenger said. "I was blessed with supportive parents. As soon as they found out what I needed to do, they changed what they ate and prepared."

Clevenger will have oatmeal and fruit for breakfast and pack a lunchbox of celery, carrots, peanut butter, snacks and a sandwich that will last her throughout the day. As long as she only eats the items she has packed, she knows she will stay within her required calories for the day.

Running is the easiest way for her to get cardio, and she has learned to love the exercise.

Fitness led to fewer injuries

The Mission: Readiness report stated that obese servicemembers were 40 percent more likely to be injured than those with a healthy weight. Likewise, slower runners were 49 percent more likely to be injured.

Looking at overall injuries, there were 72 percent more medical evacuations from Afghanistan and Iraq for stress-fractures and serious sprains than for combat wounds, the report said.

"When I first started, I really hated running, but now, it's probably my favorite thing to do as far as exercises. It's the easiest way to get cardio done, and it may feel bad when you're doing it, but it feels amazing when you finish," Clevenger said.

Williams is looking for recruits such as Clevenger and Gardner, two of 165 soldiers in Alabama's Future Soldier program.

"We're looking for people just like these two Future Soldiers here that are motivated and willing to stick to it and have commitment and a sense a pride," Williams said. "That is what the Army is looking for."

Gardner and Clevenger both agree, the work is worth it.

"It's definitely worth the sacrifice of what's going to come with it," Gardner said. "There's a lot of days you're going to wake up and not want to do sprints, but you got to do it. It's worth it. I'm grateful I woke up and decided to do it."

©2015 the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Future soldiers recite the Oath of Enlistment during the 56th Annual Torrance Armed Forces Day Parade in Torrance, Calif., May 16, 2015.
THOMAS CROUGH/U.S. ARMY

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