First lady Michelle Obama called on parents, schools, workplaces and the military to combat America's obesity epidemic in a visit to Fort Jackson on Thursday.
As America's waistline has grown, finding young people fit enough to serve in the military has become a problem, U.S. Army officials told Obama during her three-hour visit.
"You can't get at this problem with just one slice of it," Obama said. "You have to get the whole country behind this because it's affecting our ability to protect our freedom."
Obama is promoting the "Let's Move!" program to combat childhood obesity. And she met with Army personnel, from privates to a three-star general, to find out how the military is dealing with the problem and how solutions might be transferred to the general population.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the Army's deputy commander for initial training, and fort commander Maj. Gen. James Milano briefed Obama shortly after she arrived around 10:30 a.m.
Of the 129,000 recruits each year, they said, about 40 percent are overweight, and only about one-quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can qualify to get into the military, due primarily to weight, as well as moral, medical and educational challenges.
Hertling attributed the problem to television, computers and fast food. He said today's youth are smarter as a group, "but they don't do things like play."
"It's a generational thing," he said, "and it's going to be hard to change a whole generation."
Obama also visited the 2-39th dining facility, one of 13 mess halls on the post.
Under the Army's "Go for Green" program, the dining facilities have switched from soft drinks to a "hydration station," and have begun posting nutritional information about cafeteria choices, among other measures to improve soldiers' health.
"A lot of this could be transferred to schools across the country," said Kim Milano, a nutritionist and wife of the fort commander.
Obama spoke with six drill sergeants and met briefly with several soldiers in training.
"It was a prestigious experience," said Staff Sgt. Brian Evans, who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan 11 times as a Special Forces soldier. "It's good to know that the president and first lady care about our soldiers' health."
He added: "She's a really warm, nice person."
Later, thousands of people crammed the Hilton Field parade ground bleachers to watch 1,100 soldiers graduate. Most were family members from across the country, who traveled to Columbia for the weekly ceremony. But many local folks showed up to see the first lady, as well.
The crowd cheered and stomped their feet as the six companies of soldiers marched onto the broad field, and again as Obama mounted a special platform in front of the bleachers, facing the soldiers.
She congratulated the graduating soldiers of the 1st battalion 34th regiment, 165th brigade and their families. She said her husband was committed to providing them everything they need while in service and the care and support they might require as veterans after service. She also repeated her theme of good health.
"You learned to follow, but you also learned to lead," she said. "And you learned to make better choices about what you eat."
Obama remained on the platform, standing and applauding as all 1,100 passed in review.
This is Obama's first visit to South Carolina since moving into the White House. The president has not been back since winning the state's 2008 primary.