FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. – Pvt. Ivan Esparza remembers walking into the cafeteria on the first day of basic training, hungry for his inaugural military chow. A drill sergeant paced around his table, peering over his shoulder and barking orders.
Then, between anxious mouthfuls, Esparza noticed an officer’s hat hanging on the handle of a glass cabinet displaying desserts. The message was clear: no cake.
“It was pretty crazy,” Esparza, 18, remembers. “They put the hat there because they know you won’t touch it.”
The hat served as an implied order, telling Esparza and his fellow trainees to watch their calories. Now, several months after Esparza arrived, the army has adopted a more direct approach to shaping the diets of its charges.
For the past two months, a color-coded system posted in each of Fort Leonard Wood’s dining facilities, or “D-Facs,” has guided soldiers and trainees to healthier food choices. The goal, army officials say, is to produce healthier, slimmer, less injury-prone soldiers.
“We discovered that when we’re getting these young people, a lot of them have never had any kind of physical activity, They’ve been sitting on couches playing Xbox,” said Jeff Maddy, chief of public information at Fort Leonard Wood. “Parents aren’t teaching these kids how to eat, how to read labels.”
For the military and for taxpayers, this has led to some costly problems. The Army spends roughly $65,000 to train a soldier. But a soldier who gets injured costs a lot more. A stress fracture in the hip, for example, might cost $300,000 to rehabilitate and might mean the person will never serve.
Over the past decade or so, the number of injuries sustained by basic training recruits has climbed. While there are no Armywide figures, a snapshot of injuries at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina, underscores the problem. In 2000 recruits sustained 30 hip stress fractures. By 2009, the number had shot up to 135.
“They come here, and we’re hurting them,” Maddy said. “We break it, we buy it.”
So the Army has rolled out a new “soldier athlete” initiative that includes the color-coded nutrition guidance. Red means less-than-optimal, yellow means slightly better, while green means optimal, with high-protein and low calories.
“The drill sergeants are not nutritionists,” said Maj. Victor Baez-An, the executive officer of the 787th Military Police Battalion. “But with these colors they can say, ‘You’ve got too much red on your plate.’ ”
The Army has also incorporated more physical therapy and fitness training into the soldier athlete effort, and starting this month, will extend the program to all five of the Army’s basic training installations.
“This is where we have absolute control over these young people,” Baez-An said. “We hope they leave here with the skills to make better choices.”
For the first three weeks of basic training, drill sergeants closely monitor the recruits as they eat, hovering over them in the D-Fac.
“There’s no soda, no caffeine. Fruits and vegetables have replaced heavy fats. You have to try very hard to not eat healthy,” said Ian Wagoner, commander of the 787th’s Echo Company, sitting in the D-Fac recently.
But when the trainees get their first pass to go off the base, they often revert to bad habits – and pay for their indulgences. Then the rigors of basic training teach their own lesson.
“On Sundays, my soldiers go on pass, and they can go eat cheeseburgers at Burger King,” Baez-An said. “Then on Monday, they come back and go on a six-mile run. The next Sunday, they don’t eat a cheeseburger.”
Still, the military puts some temptation in their soldiers’ paths. Fast-food restaurants operate on military bases here and abroad. When anyone enters the grounds of Fort Leonard Wood, for example, they pass through the checkpoint and drive a few hundred yards before two restaurants come into view: Burger King and Church’s Fried Chicken. The Army says these restaurants are essential for making soldiers feel at home.
“Things like that affect recruiting,” Baez-An noted.
So, as the Army works to revamp the eating habits of its recruits, it has to strike a balance, one that young soldiers like Esparza are working on, too.
“I don’t eat bread anymore,” he said. “I try to eat a salad with every meal.”