FORT JACKSON, S.C. (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama said Thursday that the military’s push to turn recruits into health-conscious warriors could be a model for making people across the U.S. more focused on fitness and nutrition.
Obama, who has made battling childhood obesity one of her signature causes as first lady, visited the Army’s largest training post at Fort Jackson outside Columbia to see what the Army has done, from more rigorous training drills to fat-free milk in its mess halls.
She told Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who has worked to overhaul both the soldiers’ diets and exercise programs, that she was fascinated by the project.
A lack of fitness is "not just a health issue but a national security issue," she said, and the military’s health initiatives could be a model for youngsters elsewhere.
"A lot of young people around the country could use the same kind of support," she said.
Hertling gave the first lady a military-style briefing, accompanied by colorful slides beamed on three large screens hung on the walls, that detailed how the nation’s obesity problems create problems for the Army.
Kids are spending too much time in front of TV and computer screens, not getting enough exercise and drinking too many sugary soft drinks, Hertling said. He said that makes their bones too fragile for military lifestyles.
New soldiers are given exercises for core body strength and stamina. Obama got to see the green salads, fruit and nuts offered in one of the chow lines at the post and chatted with drill sergeants about the challenges of getting recruits into shape.
The first lady sat with a half-dozen senior trainers, asking them how they dealt with a generation more adept at video games than sports or playground games.
"How are the soldiers reacting to this new training? I’m a mother, and it’s all about getting the kids to go outside," she told Staff. Sgt. Brian Evans, of East St. Louis, Ill.
"It takes a while before they figure it out, that this food, this exercise, actually works," responded Evans, a 14-year Army veteran who said he’d been deployed seven times to Iraq and four to Afghanistan with Special Operations units. "Hopefully they will take that and adapt it to their lifestyle, so it branches off back to their families."
Obama echoed that message in her address later in the day to the 1,100 soldiers graduating after 10 weeks of basic training and recognized their effort to choose healthier foods.
"I know these past 10 weeks haven’t been easy," she told the soldiers. "But the truth is, you never gave up, you never gave in, you pushed yourself to your limits and beyond."
To wild cheers, Obama praised the families attending for letting their young men and women serve their country despite the risks.
"We want you to know how proud we are of all that you have achieved. We are grateful to you all," she said.
Fort Jackson’s commander, Maj. Gen. James Milano, said the first lady’s visit was a big boost for military families, particularly those who have endured years of deployments and separations.
"It’s a huge benefit for us, to have her come here and visit. This is a great day, a chance for her to come and talk directly to Army soldiers and their families," Milano said.
Also Thursday, Obama appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to urge Americans to support the struggles of U.S. military families. The first lady said she and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, plan to launch a campaign in March to support military families.
Three days ago, President Barack Obama announced programs meant to support military families, including initiatives to prevent suicide and homelessness.
"There are things as a nation we can do big and small," the first lady said during her television appearance. "And it’s not a difficult thing to do."
Fort Jackson trains more than 60,000 soldiers annually, including more than half the Army’s female soldiers.
Associated Press writer Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report from Chicago.