Yuki Noguchi / NPR
Marcus Robinson wanted to follow his older brother, whom he idolized in military life. He also needed military benefits to pay for college. “I had to do it because I didn’t want my parents to worry about paying for school,” said the 18-year-old.
But last year – in the middle of his senior year in high school – Robinson tipped the scales at £ 240, making him too heavy to qualify for U.S. Army fitness standards.
“I would look at my pictures and I would be upset,” Robinson said. Repeated attempts to lose weight on their own do not work. The pandemic life at home and his summer work in an ice cream parlor added more weight.
An increasing percentage of young people face the same problem. In all segments of the army, 31% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot join because they are too heavy, according to the Ministry of Defense. The military, the army’s largest branch, has to recruit about 130,000 people a year to carry out its missions, and therefore faces the weight of the recruitment challenge that childhood obesity poses.
In response, about a decade ago, individual recruiters in the country began identifying and working with potential recruits who had to lose tens of pounds or more to qualify for military service. It is not part of an official army-sponsored program; many tenants have simply realized that they need to mentor people who are losing weight to achieve their own goals.
“You’re even gaining in an obese population because it’s so common,” said retired Major General Malcolm Frost, who has served in the military for 35 years and is a member of the Preparedness Mission, a non-governmental group focused on preparing young people for service. “This is what our recruits from all over the country are doing.”
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In addition, the military has long recruited the most from the southern states, he added, where obesity levels are rising.
Frost says rising levels of childhood obesity in the United States are also a concern for senior military officials, who have largely turned their support to prevention programs – advocating for food subsidies for low-income families to provide basic nutrition, for example.
But tackling obesity in older children and teens, once introduced, is notoriously difficult. Many factors that support it are beyond the control of the recruiter – things like low family income or poor access to healthy food. These problems only intensified during the pandemic.
All of these problems fuel growing concerns about the resilience of the country’s military, Frost said. “In a generation or two, this will be a potential existential threat to our nation,” he said.
Powerful forces such as food insecurity and the ways in which cheap, high-calorie junk food sells heavily add to the challenge, said Jeffrey Snow, another retired major general who until three years ago led conscription into the army and army reserves. During his war days, Snow said, he regularly spoke about the importance of preventing and alleviating obesity, both inside and outside the military.
“It’s a wicked problem,” he said, adding that he had spent years “talking blue in the face,” but without much success. “I can’t even tell you that I had an influence on this problem.”
But recruiters’ efforts are largely important, Snow says, for people who can lose enough weight to meet the army’s standard, which he says is about 1,000 to 2,000 a year.
“For those young men and women who managed to join, I can tell you that it changed their lives,” he said.
This is certainly the case with recruiting Marcus Robinson, who began showing up at the Army Recruiting Office in Waldorf, Michigan, for weekly training in the outdoor parking lot.
One recent Wednesday, Robinson showed up with a bottle of water and wearing a high school tracksuit. He and about 15 other recruits soon found themselves sweating during a 90-minute workout that included squats, push-ups and rounds.
Every week before these workouts, Robinson steps on a scale and measures his neck and waist.
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The first time he did it last year, he says he was told he had to lose 10 inches around his waist. “It was a big number,” Robinson said. “Every time I walked in, I was like, ‘Hey, can you measure me,’ and for many months that number started to go down?”
This is a constant struggle.
“Eating is a mental challenge,” says Robinson. Many things test his determination, such as comparing himself to men with tight bellies or being too tired to train. Sometimes he cancels his diet with lean meat and vegetables. But he maintained close contact with his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Stephen Alstrom, who helped serve as Robinson’s stop.
“One Wednesday he was not performing well and that was due to his diet,” said Alström.
Robinson recalls the incident: “I came in late and talked to him about how I was feeling and he just got me back on track.”
Ahlstrom brings Robinson back on the road, reminding him of the peculiarities of better health: Drink a gallon of water a day, avoid fast movement, exercise regularly. Ahlstrom also recommends setting a “cheat day” once a week to indulge in a junk food treat as a reward for sticking to a lighter diet the rest of the time. Alstrom says he personally spends much of the week waiting for the double cheeseburger he can afford on Friday night.
“Saturday nights are definitely my scam,” Robinson said. But also, he says, a healthier diet has changed his taste in food. “Once you start drinking water, soda tastes disgusting.”
Teaching this level of personal change is a difficult job, given – again – it is not an official army program and success is far from guaranteed. For example, Alström sometimes takes potential recruits home and takes them to training.
“It’s hard because your mind will leave before your body can,” says Alstrom, so maintaining the motivation of those he mentors is crucial. For some people, losing weight can take years. And he knows that some will drop out.
But there are inspiring examples of success. Last year, for example, Ahlstrom helped another young man lose 100 pounds to enroll successfully. Robinson, he says, showed the same level of dedication to hard work.
By March of this year, Robinson had lost 65 pounds. He finally managed to enroll and begin basic military training this month.
“We did it. We’re here,” Robinson says, beaming triumphantly as Alstrom watches and nods.