Gabriel Mendez Ramirez shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp in late May with a whole lot less baggage than he used to carry.
Friends at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, California, used to shout out "Meatball!" when Ramirez walked down the hall.
As a freshman, he weighed 365 pounds. By the time he left for Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego on Monday, though, Ramirez was outrunning other poolees at his recruiting station, having dropped 186 pounds in his quest to join the service.
"He is extremely fit," said Staff Sgt. Anna Rodrigues, his recruiter. "He was motivating other kids to push themselves past their boundaries."
Ramirez shared his years-long battle to lose enough weight to qualify for the Marine Corps in a recent release published by his recruiting district. He's now in a two-week quarantine before starting boot camp, so wasn't available for interviews.
In the release, he credited Rodrigues with seeing past his weight the first time they met. Over two years, he said, his recruiter challenged and encouraged him to meet his goal.
Rodrigues, now the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of Recruiting Sub-Station Oceanside, met Ramirez when he was a sophomore in high school. He might not have looked like a typical Marine prospect, but Rodrigues said that, when she became a recruiter, she told herself never to shut anyone down.
"I'm not looking for the strongest; I'm not looking for the smartest or the fittest," she said. "I'm looking for people that have heart because that will carry you further than anything else."
At 5 feet, 8 inches, Ramirez was far heavier than the 180-pound max the Marine Corps sets for his height. Rodrigues told the high schooler that if he were really interested in becoming a Marine, he should show up to poolee events and train with them -- and he did.
It was going to hurt, she recalled telling him in the beginning, but he'd need to push himself physically. Despite a few roadblocks, he got stronger and faster over time.
Now, he's planning to join the infantry.
"I'm honestly really impressed with Gabriel and how far he's come," Rodrigues said. "And if I would have been that person to shut him down, who knows where Gabriel would be right now. He's proving all those people wrong who doubted him."
The number of young people who don't meet military weight and fitness standards is a major concern for recruiting officials in every service. A 2018 report from the Council for a Strong America, which advocates for policies that promote good health and nutrition for kids, found that obesity disqualifies about a third of young people from serving in the military.
Rodrigues said she's working with another poolee who lost 180 pounds to qualify for boot camp.
"There are a lot of kids that aspire to do this," she said, adding that recruiters shouldn't be quick to turn someone away if they show determination to meet a tough goal.
As Ramirez worked toward his goals, Rodrigues said he motivated others along the way. He was vocal about everything his recruiters did to help him and told other poolees to follow their advice.
"He honestly developed into a true leader," she said. "It was a really proud moment for me just to see how far he came. I'm really happy he went through with it. He accomplished everything."