Turned away from an Army enlistment three times last year because of his weight, Jeremy Phillips wanted one more shot at the physical that kept denying him a ticket to basic training.
He had already worked off 85 pounds in his yearlong bid to meet Army enlistment standards. His weight was down to 215 pounds, but his body fat percentage was still too high.
He wasn’t ready to give up.
“Have a little faith in me,” the 5-foot, 11-inch Thurston County man told his recruiters.
Given a fourth try, Phillips almost couldn’t bring himself to look at the results.
“I couldn’t believe it. Where it normally said ‘fail,’ it said ‘pass,’ ” said Phillips, 21.
These days, a lot of military recruits have to change their habits to join increasingly selective armed forces, but few have worked as hard as Phillips to meet enlistment standards.
“He was determined, the most I’ve seen. He never lost sight what he wanted to do,” Staff Sgt. Asad Mohamed of the Army recruiting station in Lacey said.
Just 25 percent of Americans younger than 24 do not have criminal records and meet the military fitness and education standards needed to enlist, according to Pentagon data interpreted by the nonprofit advocacy group Mission: Readiness.
The group is raising the alarm about obesity and high school dropout rates because some fear the country is not preparing young people for competitive security and economic challenges.
“That ineligibility is a risk to national security because you are at risk of not having enough people who can be trained to defend our country,” said Eleanor Valentin of Puyallup, a retired Navy rear admiral who works with Mission: Readiness.
Meanwhile, people who want to join are competing for fewer spots.
In 2008, when the Army was building forces to fight simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it recruited 80,000 people for active-duty enlistments and re-enlistments. Last year, it needed 57,000 people to sign up as it carried out a post-Iraq drawdown.
That means recruiters have less incentive to accept a would-be soldier who isn’t ready to succeed at basic training.
“During the war, things get a little bit lax because everyone is needed,” Lt. Col. Anthony Lieggi, chief of human resources for the Washington National Guard, said. For example, the Guard now is less likely to accept a candidate who has not graduated from high school than it was during the wars. Previously, candidates could join if they had passed a high school equivalency exam.
His recruiters often help enlistees meet physical fitness standards, he said. Recruiters will invite people who want to enlist to workouts to help them drop the last few pounds.
“We encourage them,” Lieggi said. “We want them to be successful.”
Phillips walked into a recruiting station early last year with a few things going for him. He met education standards, and he didn’t have a felony record. He also was an athlete who played football and competed in track at Black Hills High School in Tumwater, where he graduated in 2012.
But he weighed 300 pounds — far more than the military would allow.
He started working out twice a day. He changed his diet to eat more chicken and vegetables, cutting out carbohydrates. He’d visit the Army recruiting station in Lacey every two weeks to check his progress and reinforce his interest.
By the fall, Phillips was exercising with recruiters.
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Mann, one of the recruiters, would shape their routines to burn calories and fat. They’d do a cardio routine at 6:30 in the morning. A high-intensity workout and a long run would follow in the afternoon.
“With every soldier I’ve ever had, I want to have them where they need to be,” Mann, an Afghanistan veteran, said.
Some need help passing academic tests, he said, others need physical training.
Last week, Mann took Phillips through a fast-paced workout at the Lacey Regional Athletic Complex. They spun through various exercises, including burpees, situps, squats and sprints.
“You got this. You got more than you think you do,” Mann said as he encouraged Phillips to keep pace on a track.
Phillips said he’s felt “livelier than ever” since he lost the weight.
He’s counting on basic training to slim him down even more. He needs to lose about 25 more pounds to advance in the Army after basic training.
“I’ve been wanting this a long time,” he said.