You can't be fat or stupid and join the Army's all-volunteer force.
While he didn't use those exact words, referring instead to "obesity" and "lack of education," Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley is sending that message to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend through Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, commander of the Army's Cadet Command.
McDonald, on Freakley's behalf, will attend several events sponsored by the U.S. Army Racing Team. He will meet with community leaders on Saturday and discuss the Army's recruiting challenges in the company of top-fuel driver Tony Schumacher and hometown hero Sgt. Nicholas Carducci, a Bronze Star medal recipient from Las Vegas who served two deployments in Afghanistan.
In a telephone interview Thursday from Fort Knox, Ky., Freakley, who is one of the Army's top recruiters, said the nation's service-age youth need to buckle down on their grades and their waistlines if they want to take advantage of the many careers and benefits the Army has to offer.
"It's very competitive today to come into the military," said Freakley, a 1975 U.S. Military Academy graduate who heads the Army Accessions Command, which includes the Army Recruiting Command.
"Of our young people today, 17- to 24-year-olds in America, only one in four is eligible."
The reason: Many teenagers aren't completing high school, and they aren't exercising and eating healthy food.
Out of the pool of 32 million who are prime age for Army recruitment, 6.1 million either didn't graduate from high school or get a general equivalency degree, or they flunked the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
Another 11 percent of the pool -- 3.7 million -- are qualified but they are overweight. The Army allows up to 22 percent body fat for males and 24 percent for females.
Freakley said 10 years ago there was one state, Kentucky, with 40 percent obesity among youth. Now there are 40 states.
"Our children are improperly nourished," Freakley said. "In many high schools, only one year of physical education is required, which means kids are much more prone to be on computers and play computer games.
"You don't see unorganized athletics where kids are just playing tag football and baseball."
The solution to making them so they are "Army strong," as he puts it, is to keep students in middle schools on track to graduate from high school and keep them physically fit.
"Whatever their potential is, they've got to stay on track in this economy. If you don't have a high school diploma, you're going to be hard to place," he said.
High schools in the Las Vegas Valley, like those in most other metropolitan areas, only have a 50 percent graduation rate, far less than the national average of 75 percent for all areas. Although Las Vegas area schools have their work cut out for improvement, some cities, such as Detroit with a 38 percent graduation rate, have more catching up to do, Freakley noted.
"This is a big issue for our country," he said.
High schools with junior ROTC programs typically have higher graduation rates than schools without them.
Speaking to a graduating class at the Army Cadet Command this year, Freakley emphasized that exercise and education go hand-in-hand because "physical fitness leads you to mental toughness."
He said the Army this year continued to meet its recruiting goals of 64,019 for active-duty soldiers and 19,998 for Army Reserve soldiers, staying within the force strength set by Congress.
The citizen-soldier reserve component is vital to keeping the Army in step with its recruitment objectives, said Anthony Reed, a former Las Vegas resident and Army Reserve ambassador-at-large.
"Today we have an elite Army, probably the best we've had, but not one that necessarily represents the cross-section of our population," said Reed, who is the Army Reserve ambassador for Virginia and a senior fellow with the International Strategic Studies Association.
"A democracy cannot hope to survive unless its armed forces cover a cross-section of the people who make up that democracy."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.