Seventeen-year-old Bryan Aguilar did not want to be a chubby Marine. But when he started high school a few years back, it was a real possibility.
During his sophomore year at West Ashley High School, Aguilar weighed nearly 200 pounds. That's when he decided to fight the fat. By running, weight-lifting and changing his diet, Aguilar morphed into a lean-and-mean ROTC machine. He headed to boot camp this summer after graduation.
He's also an exception among many kids in South Carolina.
A recent report on America's defense readiness says the nation's obesity epidemic is threatening the country's military future, with easy access to junk food and a sedentary lifestyle among the worse culprits.
"Today, otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight," according to the report by the advocacy group called Mission: Readiness, Military Leaders for Kids.
The group, made up of several hundred retired military leaders, wants junk food removed from schools, healthier cafeteria meals and more dedication to cutting obesity, starting in elementary school grades. If something isn't done, the group warns, then future needs of military personnel in the air, on land and at sea could go unfilled.
South Carolina statistics show the state already is in the danger zone as one of the top seven for youth obesity in the country, with about 48 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds considered overweight or obese. That's up from a 31 percent level in 10 years. Each person in that age group would have to lose an average of 32 pounds to get below the overweight threshold, the report estimates.
Charleston County School District officials are aware of the weight issue. One factor already identified is how physical education is taught. Students in South Carolina need only one PE course to graduate, which means if someone takes it their freshman year, they may never take part in a school-oriented physical activity again through graduation.
Dave Spurlock, who works in a number of roles with the district, ranging from promoting athletics to Reserve Officers' Training Corps and drivers education, thinks the requirements are insufficient. Recent trends have shown most education measurements hinge "only on the bottom line academic score," he said. "Imagine what being really physically fit and making it a real focus will do for their (students') psychological well-being."
ROTC programs are in every high school in Charleston County, and a sampling of students who have taken part with an eye toward joining the military say even a little extra physical training helps. West Ashley High Navy Junior ROTC member Javona Tolbert, now a 17-year-old senior, weighed 187 pounds when she was a freshman. She has since shed weight and is down to 164, with plans to report for her Navy training this summer. Navy counselors told her to eat smaller portions, walk more and stay away from her favorite sweet, cheesecake.
Sophomore Chris Beachler is another beneficiary of ROTC experience. He's gone from 6 feet tall and 185 pounds to 6 feet 3 inches and 174 pounds. Prior to ROTC, "I wasn't doing anything," he said. "Sitting at home, doing absolutely nothing."
On a recent Friday, students gathered at the West Ashley High School exercise yard for 45 minutes of ROTC calisthenics and running laps on the track. Master Chief Tim Strickland, a Naval science instructor at West Ashley High who oversees the workouts, said he'd like to get more kids involved in these types of outdoor activities, though not necessarily as part of a commitment to join the military.
The way things are set up now in youth TV and video game culture, he said, for some kids "the only time they see the sunshine is when they are getting on the bus."