BAGHDAD - During a deployment a lot of service members often find themselves putting aside things like going to the gym, or making healthy food choices. Placing so much focus on mission accomplishment may cause them to feel they don't have the time or energy to work on personal improvement.

The United States Forces-Iraq Deputy Commanding General for Advising and Training, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, with the assistance of the Forward Operating Base Union III Mayor's Cell staff, has developed a program that motivates individuals to make physical fitness a priority.

FOB Union III residents signed up to participate in the first Weight Loss Challenge that kicked off here March 13. The 10-week challenge will track the progress of individual participants, pairs, and teams through weigh-ins and competitive events.

The Weight Loss Challenge is a part of Ferriter's goal to promote Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, a U.S. Army program developed to improve the physical and mental resilience of service members and family members.

"I think all too often, people make the mistake of not looking on the positive side of things," said Ferriter, a native of Carmel, Calif. "I think they should encourage, motivate, inspire and build teams. If the team in stronger physically, mentally, spiritually, tactically and technically, then we have a stronger force."

The Weight Loss Challenge is a way to motivate service members to take time to strengthen their physical bodies, which in turn, helps strengthen their minds.

"[Service members] who physically work out feel better about themselves," Ferriter said. "We thought we should come up with a program to reward those who are really working hard."

Teamwork is a key ingredient in the challenge, and that teamwork began with the challenge's development.

"We wanted to do a base-wide get healthy, get fit program for all the troops," said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Amanda Harness, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Morale, Welfare and Recreation here, who was heavily involved in the planning of the Weight Loss Challenge. "We created calendars, programs and schedules and searched to find trainers and talents here (such as nutritionists and instructors for alternative fitness classes)."

Not only is the Weight Loss Challenge geared to help service members lose weight, but it's also organized to help participants transition to a healthier, happier life style.

"This isn't just a change for 10 weeks, this is a change for a lifetime," said Harness, a native of Frewsburg, N.Y.

As a part of making that transition, organizers are providing participants with resources to teach them healthier habits.

We are making nutrition and fitness experts available to participants throughout the challenge, Ferriter said.

The challenge will help participants get in shape. To help ensure this happens, they will be held accountable to their teammates during five team competitions conducted periodically through the duration of the challenge.

Competitions will include events such as a "five-man humvee pull" for the fastest time, Ferriter said.

There's also been talk of an event consisting of sandbags and stairs, Harness said.

The challenge has something for everyone, even if they have no need to lose weight, there are other incentives to getting involved.

"If you win that [humvee pull], you'll get a four-day pass at the Australian House swimming pool over on Victory Base Complex," Ferriter said with a smile, during his opening remarks at the kick-off event.

There are several reasons to get involved with the Weight Loss Challenge, whether it is just improving fitness, developing healthier eating habits, motivating fellow service members, or simply winning a prize from the many competitions. No matter what the reason, getting involved will allow deployed service members to take the benefits of a life-changing experience back home with them at the end of their deployment.

Editor's note: This story is the first part of a six-part series.