February 20, 2006
Struggling For Recruits, Army Relaxes Its Rules
Fitness, education, age criteria change
By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff
CHICOPEE - Generation XL is having a hard time squeezing into its military fatigues. Just ask Kyle Kimball.
The 18-year-old dreamed of following in his father's footsteps and serving with the Marines. But between his sophomore and senior years at Haverhill High School, Kimball packed on 80 pounds, ballooning up to 250. The cutoff for a 5-foot-10 Marine recruit: 215."There was just no way I was ever going to see that again," said Kimball, who works for his father's scrap-metal business.
But Kimball has another option. Earlier this month, he drove to Westover Joint Air Reserve Base in Chicopee and became one of New England's first would-be soldiers to take a fitness test for overweight recruits. His goal is to gain entrance into his second choice, the US Army.
With more than 2,200 dead and 16,700 wounded, and a large percentage of Americans disapproving of the war in Iraq, the US military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. With little fanfare, the Army has eased enlistment restrictions, allowing soldiers previously considered too heavy, too old, too sickly, or too uneducated to head off to basic training.
In January, the enlistment age for active-duty Army recruits was raised from 35 to 40. Late last year, a key drug test for recent use of marijuana was softened. Last fall, a high school equivalency program was put in place for high school dropouts. And last spring, a ban on childhood asthmatics was removed.
But in a country where the rate of teenage obesity climbed from 5 percent to 16 percent over the last 30 years, perhaps the most significant revision is a loophole that allows recruits who are too heavy to meet weight or body fat limits to take the fitness test anyway.
"There's just a lot of kids sitting around playing Xbox and eating junk food," said Lieutenant Commander Renee J. Squier, who oversees the fitness test in Chicopee. "We lose a fair amount of people because they're really out of shape."
Kimball and Michael Hawkins, 23, of Malden, both said they undertook tough workouts before heading to Westover. The fitness assessment they took was a variation on the half-century-old Harvard Step Test. Subjects march up and down on a platform 18 inches high for men, 12 inches for women and keep pace with a metronome that ticks off a brisk 30 steps per minute. After 5 minutes, they sit and rest for 60 seconds. To pass, their pulse needs to be under 180 and that's not saying much, according to Gary Skrinar, a professor of exercise physiology at Boston University. "Even if you're at 170, you're in pretty bad shape," he said.
After the step test, male recruits have to do 15 pushups in a minute. Women must do four.
Earlier this month, with his childhood dream on the line, Kimball walked into a sparsely furnished room on the Chicopee base, wearing black sweatpants, a gray T-shirt, and white running shoes. "Five minutes," he told himself. "I can do this." The soldier in charge gave him the signal and he started stepping.
The Army began administering the fitness tests for overweight recruits in six cities last year as a hedge against the increasing number of recruits failing to make weight. To date, more than 800 potential recruits who surpassed the Army's body weight standards have passed the conditioning test and gone on to basic training.
At the beginning of the month, with preliminary results in from those six cities 73 percent passed the test was extended to eight additional recruitment centers, including Westover, the first in New England.
The test is not open to everybody. Overweight men must measure below 30 percent body fat. Female recruits must have a body fat measurement of between 32 percent and 36 percent.
"These aren't guys from `The Biggest Loser,' " said Lieutenant Colonel Dan Weaver, who is overseeing the testing, referring to the reality show where obese people compete to lose the most weight. "These aren't morbidly obese people, and this test isn't a free ticket. It's going to wind you and challenge motivation."
Captain Mark Spear of the North Shore Army Recruiting Company said he has sent about a half-dozen recruits to Westover since the test became available the first week of February.
"There's definitely a lot of out-of-shape people who come in here that are interested in the Army," said Spear, whose offices have two doctor's scales. "Pretty much the first thing we do is weigh them and measure them to see if there's going to be a problem."
The increased age limit, which was put in place on Jan. 6, allows active-duty Army enlistees to ship to basic training until the day before their 40th birthday. A more substantial impact on recruiting, Spear said, has been the GED course. Starting last October, high school dropouts have been able to enroll in an Army-sponsored program to help them earn their equivalency degree. The program has yielded between 20 and 30 new recruits at the North Shore recruiting center, Spear said. Last month, his quota was 42 active-duty recruits and 18 reservists.
Also helpful in recruiting has been the more lenient drug-testing policy. Before last year, a recruit who tested positive for marijuana had to wait six months to retake the test. Last year, that waiting time was knocked down to 45 days, Spear said.
None of those issues were at stake for Kimball, who graduated from Haverhill High School last year and was a sergeant in the Marine ROTC program. For him, the issue was weight.
During his sophomore year, Kimball wrestled at 171 pounds. Then he quit the team and his training diet and started lifting weights. Last week, eight months after graduation, a recruiter measured his neck at 17 1/2 inches and his abdomen at 43 inches. Though he said he can bench-press 285 pounds, running 3 miles is a substantial exertion.
After he realized the Marines were out of the question, an Army recruiter showed up at his door and told him about the new conditioning test not available in any other branch of the military.
"I told him, `Let's do it, I'm ready,' " Kimball said.
An 18-year-old male like Kimball must be able to run 2 miles in 15 minutes, 54 seconds. He also must be able to bang out 53 situps and 42 pushups in 2 minutes each.
The step test measures fitness and assesses whether a recruit has the determination to meet those goals, said Squier, the Chicopee test overseer. A few hours after Kimball took the test, Squier, who is 36 and gave birth 15 months ago, barely broke a sweat while she was doing it. A minute after she stopped, her pulse had dropped to a leisurely 118. Minutes later, she knocked off 41 pushups in 60 seconds, stood up, and announced, "No problem."
Not so for Kimball. Two minutes into the step test, he could no longer keep pace with the metronome. The instructor told him to stop, take a few seconds, and try to match the pace again. After twice failing to keep up, he was out.
"It's horrible," Kimball said after he had a chance to digest the news. "But you can't quit."
Hawkins also failed to finish. At 5-foot-10 and 240 pounds, Hawkins considers himself "big-boned" and not in great shape.
"But I can get there," he said. "I know I can lose the weight."
Kimball said he hopes to take the test again on Sunday. Hawkins plans to retake it next month.
"I'm going to hit the gym even harder," Kimball said. "Whatever it takes, I'll do it."
I don't see what the problem is as long as they pass the same standards in basic, which they will have to. I'm down about 60 pounds from last summer, to around 210. I'm currently in the process of attempting to enlist in the Army and might wind up taking this test. Although if I lose another 10 or 15 pounds I can probably meet the normal bodyfat standards.
I joined the YMCA today. I'm going to start going several times a week. I wouldn't discredit someone just because they're overweight. I've worked hard to get where I've gotten to so far.
I came out of the IRR last year; I had been out for 5 years and spent the time in law school and the private practice of law. At 6'1" I had ballooned to 255. I wanted to go back into the Army and be eleigible for promotion. I enrolled last week in the Engineer Captains Career Course; I weighed in at 203 and did not need to be taped. I am empathetic to heavy people. I love to eat and drink, but it is not always good for me. Your own efforts second that idea. We have a big problem in this country; the kid that said he was "big boned" needs to get real.