FORT SILL, Okla.-- Mom and dad, relax; your son or daughter is part of a well-fed team through the efforts of the Fuel the Soldier program, part of the Soldier Athlete Initiative.

While developing healthy eating habits, they are working through Basic Combat Training's 10 weeks at Fort Sill, Okla.

The initiative feeds and trains BCT and advanced individual training Soldiers much the way professional and college athletes train. Similar to these world-class athletes, the Army is developing Soldiers better prepared to face the demands of Army life and combat operations.

In its 16th month of existence, Fuel the Soldier, the nutritional aspect, has transformed how Training and Doctrine Command dining facilities feed tomorrow's Soldiers today. The program began in early 2011 with the intent to combat the effects of a fast food culture and decreased fitness levels among new recruits.

Compounding these cultural influences, last year Oklahoma broiled through a harsh summer with nearly three months of days of more than 100-degree temperatures. Col. Gregory Dewitt, 434th Field Artillery Brigade commander, spoke of the initiative's success as few Soldiers suffered from heat-related injuries.

"I believe the change in nutrition contributed to that result," he said. "We feed them differently and they look differently."

Even better than statistics, the brigade receives good feedback from operational Army units.

"We've had units training at Fort Sill and commanders will stop and ask what's different at basic training? They said, 'Soldiers you send us seem a little more fit, and they look fit,'" said Dewitt.

In answer, he showed them the dining facilities and the emphasis of nutritionally sound meals.

Trained DFAC cooks prepare foods that fall into one of three categories: green, yellow and red. Green foods are the most nutritionally dense items, such as those found at a good salad bar or vegetable entrees. Yellow foods have less nutritional value and red foods the least. Red foods offer more calories than nutrition, but all three play a part in the varying dietary needs of Soldiers, said Capt. Lisa Reid, Reynolds Army Community Hospital chief of nutrition, who said education is the key component in this program.

"It's not just all about healthy healthy healthy; if done right, Soldiers will come away knowing how to use the menu and labels for their own unique needs," she said. "For a thin Soldier, there's plenty of protein options such as yogurt, milk or other red foods that are not all inherently bad. They may contain more sugar and fat compared to green options, but calorie density can give slimmer Soldiers what they need to perform their best."

Working on her graduate degree, Reid is using the Soldier fueling program for the basis of her thesis. She said labeling is making a big difference as Soldiers tend to select green entree choices. When red label foods are occasionally offered, Soldier took advantage and ate cheeseburgers or beef tacos, the kinds of foods many were raised on. But, Reid said any dietician would see this as appropriate.

Maj. Scott Schmidt, 434th FA medical officer, serves as the brigade's physical therapist and oversees the muscular-skeletal action team that consists of a physical therapist, athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. Together they provide the care and expertise to run the physical training portion of the program.

His personnel educate BCT Soldiers and drill sergeants seeking to prevent injuries before they occur. Though he said it is hard to correlate reduced injuries specifically to their education efforts, he said in the first six months of fiscal 2012, the brigade reported 3,500 less sick call cases for BCT Soldiers.

"In part, two vaccines against upper respiratory infections contributed to this reduction, but certainly Soldier fueling also was a factor," he said.

Drill Sgt. (Sgt. 1st Class) Jamil Bush, C Battery, 1st Battalion, 19th Field Artillery, has trained BCT Soldiers for almost two years. Although he said he doesn't have time to eat in the dining facility, healthy eating is something he chooses to do anyhow and what he sees here reinforces that decision. He's experienced first hand how the program can change lives citing one Soldier who arrived at Fort Sill on the heavier side.

"He said before he enlisted in the Army his dinner might be splitting a bucket of fried chicken along with the less-than-healthy sides with his mother and one brother.

Through diet and exercise, the young man lost 65-85 pounds, some before coming to Fort Sill, the rest in BCT.

Pfc. Nick Henry, a National Guardsman, is working his way through BCT. For this tall, lean Soldier, he's eating more than he did at home, and he said he's consuming quite a bit of fresh fruit. Gone are the days of cooking something quick and marginally nutritious such as a can of soup.

"Though I'm eating a lot, the physical training counteracts what I'm eating, and I feel like I have more energy," he said.

He added he expects something he's done three times a day for 10 weeks will stay with him and improve his eating habits when he returns home.

Pvt. Courtney Kowalski is another guardsman who will return to civilian life following basic. She said the food isn't anywhere as bad as she thought it might be.

"I like the variety they offer, and I'm eating smaller portions then when I was a civilian," she said. "I'm also eating more yogurt, salad and vegetables now."

Lt. Col. Jon Davis, 434th FA deputy commanding officer, said drill sergeants don't have to police the menu and can turn their Soldiers loose to eat whatever they want in the dining facility.

Eventually these Soldiers will move on to advanced individual training, some will return home and other move on to operational units. That may be the litmus test for the value of the Soldier fueling effort.

"We hope they will see short order lines as 'sometimes food' and continue to make healthy choices," said Davis.

Dewitt said a healthier Soldier can "get after those things the Army wants them to do, especially in a combat environment."

At the same time the service is drawing down, reducing its number of personnel. He added meeting height and weight standards, is a key aspect of staying in the Army.

"Training posts are where it all starts, if it hasn't begun before they get here. We ought to be doing the right things and one of them is feeding the Soldiers and giving them the proper nutrition to do what the Army needs of them," he said. "I encourage the chain of command to eat in the dining facility so we know what the Soldiers are eating, and when we're asked, we can talk from personal experience."

Fuel the Soldier is one side of the Soldier Athlete Initiative. The Cannoneer will next look at the impact of MATS teams on injury prevention and how physical readiness training transformed the physical requirements of Basic Combat Training.