They troop around Lake Montebello in the fading autumn light, a misery squad of pumping arms and legs. A Marine sergeant, brawny as an action figure, is hard on their tail.
"Who's tired? Anybody tired?" snaps Gunnery Sgt. James A. Ruffin after the two dozen runners sprint the last 20 yards to a grassy strip and assemble in two ranks.
"No, sir!" they shout back.
These young men and women have enlisted in the Marine Corps and are scheduled to enter boot camp by early next year. To prepare for that day, they have met twice each week for months, building muscles with sit-ups, push-ups, pullups and a 3.4-mile cross-country run that ends by this city lake.
This is a boot camp for boot camp.
Faced with a "Nintendo Generation" -- short on stamina and discipline -- and a persistent loss of enlistees that is sapping a stagnant Pentagon budget, the Marines this year unveiled this vigorous training program.
Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant, wanted something that would challenge enlistees and instill ethical values. Why? "Society changed," he says.
"Fall out!" Ruffin thunders. Sweat-drenched Tom Bowen, a 25-year-old enlistee from Fells Point, fights for breath. Veins bulge from his reddened forehead.
When he started the voluntary program two months ago, he couldn't complete the course. "I used to run, but not like this," he says. "Maybe a mile a day. Not at this pace."
Congress, alarmed by the poor quality of some recruits and a high attrition rate, is prodding the services to redouble their efforts to help those like Bowen to shape up rather than ship out.
The pending Defense Department authorization bill would direct the Pentagon to consider using recruiters and reservists to lead a more extensive program of physical fitness. Under the plan, enlistees could also work out at military fitness centers and recu- perate at military hospitals if they get injured.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has asked the services to look into creating enhanced boot camp readiness programs along the lines pioneered by the Marines.
Thousands of recruits are discharged each year because they are not "physically prepared" and "lack motivation," the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported in January.
It costs $15,000 to $30,000 to train a recruit and teach military skills in infantry, artillery or computers. Two years ago, the Defense Department spent $390 million on those who never made it to their first military job, the GAO found.
"Recruiters [say] that today's kids are not as physically fit as they once were and this is a particular problem," says Steve Sellman, the Pentagon's director of recruit planning. "If what you're looking at is to prepare them physically and psychologically, [a pre-training program] is a reasonable thing to do."
One congressman, after a tour of training facilities, also encountered frustration with the caliber of today's enlistees.
"There's a general complaint about the quality of the recruit that the Army is bringing in. The drill sergeants call them the 'Nintendo Generation,' " said the chief backer of the proposal, Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and Army Reserve major who chairs the military personnel subcommittee. "How can you bring in someone that is not physically fit?"
Maj. Gen. Mark R. Hamilton, head of recruiting for the Army, the largest of the nation's military services, says it's wrong to "indict an entire generation" and stresses that "the quality of our recruits remains very high."
Hamilton concedes that the youth of today may not be as physically active as previous generations. The Army is seeing increased knee, ankle and back injuries in the training base, he said, which could lead to removal from the ranks.
The Army has put increased emphasis on physical conditioning prior to basic training, says Hamilton, with recruiters playing softball, flag football and volleyball with enlistees. Army regulations say fitness exercises "should be conducted once a month at a minimum" and each training session should last less than two hours.
Both the Navy and the Air Force provide pamphlets telling recruits what to expect at basic training and encouraging them to fashion their own physical fitness program.
Nationwide, Marine recruiters must train weekly with their enlistees under the "Welcome Aboard" effort that began in January and includes a detailed physical fitness schedule with goals and progress charts.
One week prior to shipping, a male enlistee must be able to run 1.5 miles in 13 minutes, 30 seconds, as well as complete 40
sit-ups in two minutes and five dead-hang pullups. A female enlistee must be able to run a mile in nine minutes, 30 seconds, complete 40 sit-ups in two minutes and maintain a flexed arm hang for 18 seconds, meaning she must keep her chin above the bar for that time.