They've already fought one war.
Now, the American Council on Exercise wants to put returning military veterans to work fighting the war against obesity.
Earlier this month, ACE, a nonprofit based in San Diego, launched Salute You – a scholarship program that will give men and women leaving the U.S. armed forces a full-ride scholarship for a self-study personal trainer certification program.
"We know that over the next five years or so, there's going to be about 300,000 service members cycling out of the military and looking for job opportunities," says ACE president and CEO Scott Goudeseune. "We also know that they're having a very difficult time finding jobs. And from what we do on a day-to-day basis, we know America is under a severe inactivity crisis, and we're seeing that in rising obesity rates."
[Read: 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise.]
Hence the birth of the Salute You program. ACE will offer at least 1,000 scholarships through the rest of 2013, with hopes to grow the program in the future. Anyone with an honorable discharge is eligible to apply within six months of leaving active duty. Scholarship recipients will receive study materials, registration for the ACE Personal Trainer Certification Exam and one-on-one study assistance via the phone and Internet. Because the course is available online, there are no location restrictions. ACE is also working to secure a guaranteed job interview for participants at one of the nation's largest fitness chains.
Military vets have long struggled to find work after serving: In 2012, new veterans ages 18 to 24 had an unemployment rate of 20.4 percent, more than 5 percentage points higher than the average among non-veterans in the same age group. And in May, about 744,000 veterans were without work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Former service members face a number of barriers to employment, including a lack of experience searching and applying for civilian jobs, as well as stigmas about their mental health.
The U.S. obesity rate, meanwhile, continues to rise. About one-third of adults and 17 percent of children in the U.S. are obese. Rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, and earlier this month, the American Medical Association declared obesity a "disease."
Goudeseune says the same qualities that make veterans good servicemen and women will make them good fitness professionals. "They're already fit, right?" he says. "They're individuals who believe in the benefits of an active life, and they've dedicated themselves to serving a greater cause. And certainly the inactivity of America is a huge cause. These folks have an overarching sense of commitment, of strength. I think they would bring a significant amount of credibility to the task because they've lived a healthy life and have taken responsibility for that."
The certification program takes four to 10 weeks to complete, depending how much time someone has to dedicate to it each day. There are currently more than 50,000 ACE-certified personal trainers across the country, and demand is typically high. Though certification isn't required, it's a big asset to getting a job.
Personal trainers make about $55,000 to $60,000 a year, Goudeseune says. They're not limited to gyms, either: Personal trainers can work in churches or YMCAs, or they can host classes in parks. They're also needed in hospitals, universities, resorts and clients' homes. Some choose to open their own studios. And there's no age restriction. "We have trainers who are in their 70s," Goudeseune says.
Mike Landers, a retired Navy captain and CEO of the Armed Services YMCA, says he commends the Salute You program. "I think ACE is being an innovator," he says. "They're taking advantage of an opportunity to provide a service to our military veterans. These guys are already in incredible shape, and they're used to routines and working out because that's part of the ethos of being in the military. Any one of these guys just getting out of the military could need a stepping stone, and what a perfect opportunity."