ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In this down economy, one of the employers still hiring is the U.S. Army, but they won't take just take anybody. The Department of Defense says there are two main obstacles for many would-be recruits, number one, no high school diploma. And number two, something millions of Americans struggle with every single day.
From Charlotte, North Carolina, Julie Rose of member station WFAE reports.
JULIE ROSE: Today, somewhere in America, someone is going to walk into an Army recruiting office and have the same conversation as Jeffrey Morgan(ph).
Mr. JEFFREY MORGAN: The recruiters say, what can I help you with today? I told them flat out, I want to sign up. And he said, first thing you need to do, lose weight.
ROSE: Morgan is 5'10", 274 pounds. So he wasn't exactly surprised to hear he needed to lose at least 70 pounds before the Army would take him.
Mr. MORGAN: Oh, no. I was always the fat kid, and I was a happy guy. I'd come home from work, drink probably about a 12-pack of beer, hang out with the boys and play Xbox.
ROSE: Morgan heard the bad news from Sergeant Lorne Smith(ph), his recruiter in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Sergeant LORNE SMITH (United States Army): The weight thing, that was all that was stopping him from joining the Army. Other than that, he was exceptionally qualified.
ROSE: 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 would be ineligible for service because of their weight. It's become such a concern that Dr. Curtis Gilroy(ph), a senior military personnel official, raised it at a recent congressional hearing.
Dr. CURTIS GILROY (Director, Accession Policy; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness; U.S. Department of Defense): We have a declining pool of eligible and qualified young people in America today who want to serve. We have an obesity problem amongst our youth.
ROSE: And what the Army considers overweight is actually more generous than CDC standards. For example, a 5'9" man is overweight with a body mass index of 25 or higher, but the Army will accept a BMI of 27.
Now, the Army says recruiters can't officially give advice on how to lose weight, they're not doctors, yet they all have to meet their goals. So many, like Sergeant Ron Kirk(ph), take it upon themselves to be trainer and motivator.
Sergeant RON KIRK (United States Army): (Unintelligible). I like being loud because loud gets everybody pumped up.
Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).
Sgt. KIRK: They come out every Wednesday, and the biggest crowd I ever had was probably around between 25 and 30.
Unidentified People: One.
Sgt. KIRK: One, two…
ROSE: In the parking lot of a recruiting office near Charlotte, Sergeant Kirk leads a dozen Army hopefuls, gasping, groaning through jumping jacks, sit-ups and push-ups. 20-year-old Andre McNealy(ph) is among them.
Mr. ANDRE McNEALY (Army Hopeful): I've been working out the past two months to try to get some weight down. This will be nothing by the time I get ready to go into boot camp.
ROSE: But recruiters say most people who want to enlist will give up their military plans before losing the weight. So when Sergeant Smith(ph) told Jeffrey Morgan to drop 70 pounds, he thought he'd never see him again. Little did he know, Morgan would immediately stop drinking beer and start exercising.
Mr. MORGAN: Ninety days after I started, I called him back. I told him that I had lost my weight, and when I hit that door, their jaws dropped.
ROSE: A couple of the recruiters didn't even recognize him. They say it's rare to see someone so self-motivated. A top Army official recently suggested starting a fitness camp because unlike the movie "Stripes" with John Candy, boot camp is not fat camp.
(Soundbite of film, "Stripes")
Mr. JOHN CANDY (Actor): (As Private Dewey Oxberger) You might have noticed that I've got a slight weight problem. And I thought to myself, join the Army. It's free. I'm going to walk out of here a lean, mean fighting machine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: One two three.
Unidentified Group: One.
Unidentified Man: One two three.
Unidentified Group: Two.
ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte, North Carolina.