Marcus Robinson wanted to follow the older brother he idolizes into military life. He also needed the Army benefits to help pay for college. "I had to do it because I didn't want my parents to worry about paying for school," the 18-year-old says.
But last year — midway through his senior year of high school — Robinson tipped the scales at 240 pounds, making him too heavy to qualify under the U.S. Army's fitness standards.
"I would look at pictures of myself and I would get upset," Robinson says. Repeated attempts to lose weight on his own didn't work. House-bound pandemic life and his summer job at an ice cream parlor added still more pounds.
An increasing percentage of young people face that same problem. Across all segments of the military, 31% of young adults ages 17 to 24 cannot enlist because they're too heavy, according to the Department of Defense. The Army, the military's largest branch, needs to recruit about 130,000 people a year to carry out its missions, and therefore faces the brunt of the recruitment challenge that childhood obesity presents.
In response, about a decade ago individual recruiters around the country started identifying and working with potential recruits who needed to lose dozens of pounds or more to qualify for military service. It isn't part of an official Army-sponsored program; many recruiters simply recognized it was necessary for them to mentor individuals in weight loss to meet their enlistment goals.
"You're even recruiting in a population that is obese," because the condition is so prevalent, says retired Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who served 35 years in the Army and is a member of Mission Readiness, a nonprofit group focused on preparing young people for service. "That's what our recruiters around the nation are dealing with."
Plus, the military has long recruited most heavily from Southern states, he adds, where obesity rates run even higher.
Frost says rising childhood obesity rates in the U.S. also are of concern to top military brass, who have largely focused their support on prevention programs — advocating for food subsidies to low-income families to ensure basic nutrition, for example.
But addressing obesity in older children and teens, once it's already set in, is notoriously difficult. Many factors that perpetuate it are beyond a recruiter's control — things such as low family income or having little access to healthy food. Those problems have only intensified during the pandemic.
All those issues feed bigger worries about the sustainability of the country's military, Frost notes. "In a generation or two, this is going to be a potential existential threat to our nation," he says.
Powerful forces such as food insecurity and the ways cheap, high-calorie junk food is heavily marketed add to the challenge, says Jeffrey Snow, another retired major general who headed recruitment for the Army and Army Reserves until three years ago. In his military days, Snow says, he routinely talked about the significance of obesity prevention and mitigation, both inside and outside the Army.
"It's a wicked problem," he says, adding that he'd spent years "talking myself blue in the face" but without much success. "I can't even tell you that I had an impact on this issue."
But recruiters' grassroots efforts do make a difference, Snow says, for those individuals able to lose enough weight to meet the Army's standard — a number he estimates to be about 1,000 to 2,000 people a year.
"For those young men and women who were able to join, I can tell you it changed their life," he says.
That's certainly the case for Robinson, who started showing up at the Army's recruitment office in Waldorf, Md., for weekly workouts outside in the parking lot.
One recent Wednesday, Robinson showed up with a water bottle and wearing his high school's track and field jersey. He and about 15 other recruits soon found themselves sweating their way through a 90-minute workout involving repetitions of squats, pushups and laps around the lot.
Every week, before these workouts, Robinson steps on a scale and gets his neck and waist measured.
The first time he did so last year, he says, he was told he had to lose 10 inches around his waist. "It was a big number," Robinson says. "Every time I came in, I was like, 'Hey, can you measure me?' " and over many months, that number started to go down.
It is an ongoing struggle.
"Eating is a mental challenge," Robinson says. Many things test his resolve, such as comparing himself with men with tight abs, or being too tired to work out. Sometimes he calls off his diet of lean meats and vegetables. But he keeps in close contact with his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Stephen Ahlstrom, who helps serve as Robinson's backstop.
"One Wednesday, he wasn't performing as well, and it's because of his diet," Ahlstrom says.
Robinson recalls that incident: "I came in late and I was talking to him about how I felt, and he just got me back on track."
Ahlstrom gets Robinson back on track by reminding him of the specifics of better health: Drink a gallon of water a day, avoid the fast-food drive-through, work out regularly. Ahlstrom also recommends setting a "cheat day" once a week for indulging in a junk food treat as a reward for sticking to a lighter diet the rest of the time. Ahlstrom says he personally spends much of the week anticipating the double cheeseburger he allows himself on Friday nights.
"Saturday nights are definitely my cheat day," Robinson says. But also, he says, eating healthier has changed his taste for food. "Once you start drinking water, soda tastes disgusting."
Teaching this level of personal change is hard work, considering — again — this isn't an official Army program, and success is far from guaranteed. Ahlstrom, for example, sometimes picks up potential recruits at home and drives them to workouts.
"It's hard, because your mind is going to quit before your body does," Ahlstrom says, so keeping the motivation of those he mentors high is critical. For some individuals, it may take years to lose the weight. And he knows some will drop out.
But there are inspiring examples of success. Last year, for example, Ahlstrom helped another young man lose 100 pounds to enlist successfully. Robinson, he says, showed the same level of commitment to hard work.
By March, Robinson had shed 65 pounds. He was finally able to enlist, and he starts basic Army training this month.
"We did it. We're here," Robinson says, beaming victoriously, as Ahlstrom looks on, nodding.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Even before the pandemic, obesity made military recruitment difficult, in particular childhood obesity. People often enlist soon after they turn 18, and at that point in their lives, nearly one-third of would-be recruits are not eligible because they do not meet the military's standard for fitness. Army recruiters around the U.S. are now running unofficial programs to help recruits lose weight.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Marcus Robinson shows up at the Army's recruitment office in Waldorf, Md., carrying a water bottle and wearing his high school's track and field jersey. In the parking lot, a recruiter leads about 15 prospective recruits in weekly workouts.
STEPHEN AHLSTROM: Group, attention. I say every week, don't quit on yourself, right?
NOGUCHI: Today, it involves rounds of squats, pushups and laps. Robinson's a regular. He started coming last summer hoping to follow his brother into the military. At 18, he also needs Army benefits to pay for college.
MARCUS ROBINSON: I had to do it because, like, I didn't want my parents to worry about paying for school. And then we'll ended up in debt. And then I'm paying for college loans for the next 20 years of my life.
NOGUCHI: But at 240 pounds last year, Robinson realized he was too heavy to enlist. Plenty of others are like him. Across all branches of the military, childhood obesity creates big challenges. According to the Department of Defense, obesity alone disqualifies 31% of would-be recruits aged 17 to 24. That's especially troubling for the Army as the military's largest branch. It needs about 130,000 recruits every year to carry out its missions. Some years it fall short. And obesity is a big reason for that. Marcus Robinson always struggled with his weight. The pandemic made things worse.
ROBINSON: After corona started, that corona 15 hit me hard.
NOGUCHI: His summer job at an ice cream shop packed on more pounds. He shows me a photo on his cellphone. His T-shirt strains across his belly.
ROBINSON: This was even me at the beginning of the year. Even looking back on that day, it was like, I would look in the mirror and it would be like, dang.
NOGUCHI: Dieting failed, so he turned to his Army recruiter as a fitness mentor.
ROBINSON: I had to lose 10 inches around my waist. It was a big number. And every time I came in, I was like, hey, could you measure me? And it turned into six, turned into five, turned into three.
NOGUCHI: By March of this year, Robinson had lost 65 pounds. He finally enlisted.
ROBINSON: It's like, we did it. We're here.
NOGUCHI: We in this case includes Staff Sergeant Stephen Ahlstrom. He stuck with Robinson, telling him to drink a gallon of water a day, avoid fast food and work out.
AHLSTROM: It's hard because you're going to go out, and your mind is going to quit before your body does, of hyping them up to let them know that they can do it.
NOGUCHI: The Army does not sponsor programs specifically to help potential recruits lose weight. But about a decade ago, many recruiters started to realize they had to help people lose weight in order to succeed at their jobs. Across the country, individual recruiters began unofficially mentoring wannabe soldiers to lose weight, lots of it. Last year, Ahlstrom helped one young man lose a hundred pounds.
AHLSTROM: I would meet him up here sometimes on Saturdays, and we'd do some extra workouts. He was highly motivated. And he's doing really well right now.
NOGUCHI: Ahlstrom sometimes picks them up and drives them to workouts himself. It's hard work. Success is far from guaranteed. But Malcolm Frost says, given obesity's prevalence, recruiters have little choice. Frost is a retired Army major general. He's also a member of Mission Readiness, a nonprofit group focused on preparing young people for service.
MALCOLM FROST: In a generation or two, this is going to be a potential existential threat to our nation.
NOGUCHI: He says, historically, the military recruits heavily from rural areas in southern states where obesity rates run even higher. Recruiters can't afford to ignore them, Frost says. Instead, they have to try to help them lose weight to qualify.
FROST: That's what our recruiters across the nation are dealing with.
NOGUCHI: Obesity is of huge concern to top military brass, but addressing it once it's already set in is notoriously difficult. Many factors perpetuating it are beyond a recruiter's control, things like family income and access to healthy food.
Jeffrey Snow headed recruitment for the Army and Army Reserves until three years ago. During his tenure, the former major general was outspoken about powerful forces that contribute to obesity, like food marketing and food insecurity.
JEFFREY SNOW: It's a wicked problem. It's a wicked problem. And I'd also be the first one to tell you, after talking myself blue in the face over the course of three years, I can't even tell, Yuki, that I had an impact on this issue.
NOGUCHI: And yet, Snow says, recruiters' grassroots efforts do make a difference. And the Army agrees, though it doesn't track people before they enlist. But Snow estimates that as many as one to two thousand people a year end up losing enough weight to make the cut.
SNOW: For those young men and women that were able to join, I tell you, it changed their life.
NOGUCHI: Marcus Robinson says that's certainly true for him, even though he still struggles.
ROBINSON: Eating is a mental challenge.
NOGUCHI: He gets discouraged when he compares himself to super fit men at the gym or when he falls off his diet of lean meats and vegetables. But his recruiter, Stephen Ahlstrom, is his backstop.
AHLSTROM: One Wednesday, he wasn't performing as well, and it was because of his diet and...
NOGUCHI: Do you remember that conversation?
ROBINSON: I actually do - came in late, and I was talking to him about how I felt. And he just got me back on track.
NOGUCHI: Ahlstrom nods and smiles. He admits he, too, has his own junk food impulses.
AHLSTROM: I make Friday my cheat day. You can't just cut off all that delicious food all the time.
ROBINSON: Yeah, I work out almost every day for three hours. I had to get a cheat day. Saturday nights were definitely my cheat day.
NOGUCHI: But Robinson also says eating healthier has changed his taste for food.
ROBINSON: Yeah, the fast food is good. But when you look back at it, it's like, is it that good? Especially, like, soda. If you drink water, you start drinking soda, soda tastes disgusting. I don't know if that happened with you, but...
AHLSTROM: You can feel the difference, like on...
AHLSTROM: ...If you go eat that double cheeseburger and then usually about Friday night, about 8 o'clock, I'm sitting on the couch going like, I...
AHLSTROM: ...Kind of regret that, but...
NOGUCHI: Later, back outside in the parking lot, Robinson and other recruits sweat their way through a hundred squats.
ROBINSON: I'm on 75. I'm going to feel better.
NOGUCHI: Nearby, a young boy named Nicholas plays with his toy cars. His mother is also a recruit, puffing through exercises.
NICHOLAS: Go, Mommy, go.
NOGUCHI: Go, Mommy, go, he says, then tells the group, I'm so proud of y'all.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Waldorf, Md.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY EMMANUEL'S "THE FINGERLAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.