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Charge of the not-so-fit brigade

Troubled teenagers often seek the security of a soldier's life, but are such raw recruits really what the modern army wants? A line of recruits staggered to the finish line after completing a mile-and-a half run to be greeted with: "Stand there with hands behind your heads, and only move if you're going to be sick - and then do it on the grass."

The 36 rookies were attending a 24-hour course at the army selection centre at Pirbright, Surrey, that includes a medical and basic fitness test, and gives would-be recruits a taste of the discipline and lifestyle they will face if they join up.

Physical training instructors bemoan the lack of fitness of some of the 16 to 25-year-olds who hope for an army career. The basic test is not arduous - a 1.5 mile run in 11.5 minutes, two pull-ups on a bar and 20 sit-ups - yet many struggle.

Instructors and officers take notes. Tattoos must be checked to ensure they are not racist or offensive in any other way. There are marks for discipline and reaction to training.

One officer said: "We are after motivated people. If they are not fit, we can do something about that. What we don't want is the sort who give up."

The last runner to finish is Anthony Fuller, a 16-year-old from Harwich, Essex, who wants to enlist for the adventure, and because it is a family tradition. "I also want to get some sort of trade, so I want to do a catering apprenticeship."

His poor performance in the run was due to an in-growing toe-nail which needs surgery. He was invited to retake the physical test in three months, and hopes to start at the army's apprentice college in January.

Gary Gunnell, 25, from Orpington, Kent, has been in the Territorials for seven years and was working in computer cabling, but decided this was his last chance to join the army and do something he enjoyed.

"I like the lifestyle, being out in the field and working as a team. I wanted something that was a bit more of a challenge than being just an infantryman, so I will be a gunner. If I continue enjoying it, I want to make it a career rather than just stay the three years," he said.

Major Peter Linney, the officer commanding the centre, said the academic background of recruits ranged from those with problems with basic literacy up to those with A-levels.

"Numbers are up on last year and we are nearly at full capacity, though August is the busiest time. They don't come in droves like they used to, but the message is getting over that we are recruiting," he said.

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