Man accepted into Air Force after losing weight

SPRINGFIELD — Only one man stood between Aaron Whisenant and his goal of joining the U.S. Air Force: Whisenant himself.

The 23-year-old who walked into a Eugene recruiting office six months ago had brains, athleticism, a good attitude and a sense of responsibility.

There was just one problem: Whisenant was 70 pounds over the limit for a 6-foot-3-inch guy to enlist.

What happened next is a story about devotion to country, service, eating right and working out. It starts with a young man who wanted only to be at his brother's side in the military and ends with the brass recognizing someone as an exceptional young recruit.

After being laid off earlier this year from a job as an appliance technician, Whisenant was considering his options when he followed his brother, Jeffrey, into an Air Force recruiting office.

Whisenant decided to enlist, too, inspired by the history of service in his family but also wanting to keep an eye on his little brother.

"He hadn't been out in the world," said Whisenant, a tall, powerfully built man with an easygoing demeanor. "(To have) a family member in the same branch, he wouldn't feel like he would be alone in the military."

But the reaction from Air Force staff was cool, to say the least.

Four out of five applicants don't make the cut for the Air Force, and somebody with Whisenant's weight challenge would be "pretty much written off," said Master Sgt. Anthony Pandina of the 361st Recruiting Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.

But Whisenant was a multi-sport athlete at Mohawk High School — including first-team all-league as a center on the football team — and he knew a thing or two about getting in shape.

First, he overhauled his diet. Out went bread and sweets, and wolfing down half a dish of lasagna for dinner. In came broccoli, celery and skinless chicken breasts steamed in water.

Whisenant also connected with his inner chef. He found he could satisfy his cravings by cooking elaborate dishes for family and friends — soft tacos, enchiladas, burritos and special dips, all prepared, he said, to "restaurant quality."

"I spent so much time making it, once I saw them eating it, I wasn't really thinking about eating it," Whisenant said. "(Cooking) calms you down."

He also went on a workout tear, putting in at least two hours a day of aerobic activity in his Springfield apartment and hitting the gym in the apartment complex.

His drill sergeant came in the form of workout videos starring Billy Blanks, a fitness guru and tireless leader of grueling, "cardio-boxing" exercises called Tae Bo. Whisenant punched, kicked and bobbed so regularly that he committed Blanks' running commentary to memory.

Whisenant lost 25 pounds in the first two months and repeatedly shed 10 pounds in a week. Whisenant visited the recruiting office every so often to weigh in, where Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Jackson would record his progress.

"I would laugh, because I couldn't believe it was actually happening," Jackson said. "It was coming off in chunks."

But as Whisenant zeroed in on his goal — 220 pounds — the big gains started to disappear. His weight was leveling off, he said, so he had to crank things up, at times working out nearly five hours a day, four days a week.

Success arrived in October, when he tipped the scales at 217 pounds.

On Wednesday, Pandina and Chief Master Sgt. Andrew Sites traveled from Tacoma to recognize Whisenant at the local recruiting office, where they awarded him a silver Commander's Coin for his commitment and welcomed him to the Air Force.

"Job well done," Pandina said, shaking Whisenant's hand. "People should have your dedication to serve our country, and you just don't see it in our country as often."

Whisenant, who is engaged to be married Dec. 10, leaves early next year for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio. He'll work as a cryptologic linguist specialist, gathering information by decrypting foreign languages.

Whisenant said he's excited to see more of his country. In fact, he hopes at some point that his travels will intersect with a taping of a favorite TV show, "Man vs. Food Nation," a competition that revolves around copious amounts of eating.

Whisenant hopes he might even be a contestant. But just once, he hastens to add.

"Just as a joke," Whisenant said, smiling. "It's not like I'm going to dedicate my life to eating."

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