WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama will visit South Carolina this week for the first time since moving into the White House when she comes to Fort Jackson to highlight the impact of childhood obesity and decreased physical activity on military recruitment.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the Army’s deputy commander for initial training, will travel from Fort Monroe in Virginia to lead a briefing for the first lady Thursday on steps military leaders are taking to reduce the number of people whose weight makes them unfit to serve.
With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last eight years, obesity in young people has made it harder for the armed forces to meet increased recruitment demands.
“This is not (just) an Army problem,” Hertling said last month. “This is a civilian problem that we’re receiving and fixing.”
Michelle Obama will spend a good chunk of the day at Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest training base, where she will discuss the “Let’s Move” campaign she launched two years ago with the aim of eliminating childhood obesity in a generation.
Pat Jones, deputy public affairs officer for Fort Jackson, said he couldn’t recall the last time a first lady visited the military base in Columbia.
President George W. Bush toured Fort Jackson toward the end of his White House tenure, but President Barack Obama has not paid a visit since his 2008 election.
“We’re always honored when a VIP comes,” Jones told McClatchy.
Michelle Obama has close family ties to South Carolina. Her great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was among hundreds of slaves who harvested and milled rice on Friendfield Plantation on the Sampit River in Georgetown County.
Michelle Obama visited relatives in Georgetown County while campaigning for her husband in the 2008 presidential campaign.
South Carolina’s Jan. 26, 2008, presidential primary delivered Barack Obama a crucial victory over Hillary Clinton in their drawn-out battle for the Democratic nomination. Republican Sen. John McCain carried the state in his losing general election bid against Obama in November 2008.
Rusty DePass, a former state Senate candidate and GOP activist, brought unwanted attention to Michelle Obama’s Georgetown roots in June 2009 when he referred on his Facebook page to a gorilla who’d briefly escaped from the Riverbanks Zoo as “just one of Michelle’s ancestors.”
DePass, who helped elect Republican Gov. Jim Edwards in 1974 and was an early supporter of Bush in 2000, apologized after state and local political leaders from both parties condemned his remark.
The Army is implementing the first major overhaul of new recruits’ diet in decades, replacing soda fountains with milk and juice dispensers while introducing whole-grain bread and pasta.
Jones said trainees now choose from foods with color-coded labels that signal their nutritional benefits.
“What they’re served has changed,” he said. “You still have the staples, but you don’t find a lot of desserts anymore. You may find a granola bar up on the line, there’s nuts, there’s fruits. You don’t find pies and cakes and all that kind of stuff. Part of it is educating the soldiers on what they should be eating.”
Fort Jackson has about 18,000 residents, among them 10,000 new soldiers who typically spend 10-week training sessions on the base, 4,000 longer-term troops and 4,000 civilian employees.
Fort Jackson is located in the 2nd Congressional District of Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, and many of its military and civilian employees live in the adjoining 6th Congressional District of Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Wilson and Clyburn declined to say whether they would greet Michelle Obama on Thursday for her visit to Fort Jackson. The House may be in session for at least part of Thursday.
In a study last October, Cornell University economists said climbing obesity rates threaten U.S. national security because they hamper military recruitment.
The number of men of military age who exceed the Army’s enlistment standards for weight-height ratio and body-fat percentage has doubled in the last half-century, with almost 12 percent now ineligible to serve, the study said.
More than one-third of women of military age cannot be enlisted because of their weight, it said.
A group of more than 50 retired generals and admirals said in a separate report last April that more than one-quarter of Americans between 18 and 27 are too fat to serve.