In 1999, Nancy McClure wanted to join the National Guard. She was 37, close to when many veterans hope to retire. The recruiter said she was too old. Two years later, she returned to that recruiter's office with two daughters who planned to enlist. McClure learned about an age waiver and promptly joined the Missouri National Guard. She was 40 years old in basic training and in great physical shape. But in 2007, she was almost kicked out. The reason: her weight.
"Before I was deployed to Kosovo, I knew that if I didn't lose weight while I was there, I would not be able to re-enlist," McClure said.
Peaking at 230 pounds in Kosovo, Staff Sgt. McClure lost 45 pounds during the deployment. That loss wasn't enough and back home, McClure found it difficult to maintain good habits. For a 2010 physical fitness test, she was too slow in the running portion by 45 seconds -- that's like an hour when it comes to running. It was time to bring in the big guns.
Boot Camp vs. Fat Camp
America's obesity level stands at almost 34 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weight loss is a $61 billion industry. The typical American dieter makes four attempts each year. According to Marketdata Enterprises, that includes everything from Slim-Fast shakes and Weight Watchers meetings to in-patient residence experiences that can run thousands of dollars per week. One such program is North Carolina's Structure House.
Lee Kern, Clinical Director at the Structure House, decided to take action when he read that the military was losing recruits due to weight. The Warrior Spirit Training Course was born; the Missouri National Guard was the first to sign up.
"My unit called me and told me that they were sending me to Warrior Spirit," said McClure. "I was upset. I told them I didn't need 'Fat Camp,' that I would be fine in October. They told me that I was an asset that needed improvement and that I was going."
"They're creating career crises for themselves," said Kern. "They're falling out of fitness."
Kern teaches soldiers about nutrition and tactics like food diaries and relaxation skills. To put taxpayers' minds at ease, it does not cost $3,200 per week, per soldier, as it would at his North Carolina campus. Kern goes to the military base and provides his own version of boot camp.
Fat On The Front Lines
According to Kern, it doesn't really matter if a person trying to lose weight is on the military's front lines or not. He says that success in weight loss is determined by a desire to make change a priority.
"The targets of change are similar," he says. "You've got to create a life and lifestyle so you can live with food."
McClure learned to make herself No. 1.
"I love making other people feel good and happy. That's the reason I love being a soldier, because I get to care for the heroes," said McClure. "I spend most of my time on others, so to stop and care for myself was, in my mind, counterproductive."
It doesn't help that during the week, McClure's job is fairly sedentary. But even during active duty, Kern says that soldiers can still make choices.
"I've been so pleased to see, inside of the military, there's a mini-revolution going on where they're changing how they put together the diet for the troops," said Kern.
"You can make healthy choices in the dining facilities on most bases," says McClure, "and that's the key, you make the choice to be healthy. No one else can make it for you."
If keeping current soldiers' weights in line wasn't hard enough, the military has been fighting to help prepare potential enlistees to qualify for the armed forces. According to a 2008 report published by Mission: Readiness with data from the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds would not qualify to serve in the military, based on weight alone. An update from June 2011 does not indicate any improvement in the fitness of young Americans.
The military isn't your standard-issue work place, and being physically fit is a requirement for many job descriptions in the "company." Discrimination because of weight is not really a factor. But in civilian society, it's rarely illegal. There are no federal laws in place, but some municipalities and the state of Michigan do ban discrimination based on weight.
Nancy McClure is 50 now and has no intention of leaving the National Guard because of her weight. She would still like to lose 15 more pounds. But she knows it's up to her. She has an annual Army Physical Fitness Test and the goal to make exercise and eating right a priority in or out of uniform.
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