WASHINGTON, DC -- Some 27 percent of young people in the United States are too overweight to join the military, a report finds.

And nearly 15,000 potential recruits who take the military’s physical fitness entrance exam fail each year because they are too heavy.

The report, titled “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve,” was released Thursday by Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit organization of 89 senior retired military leaders aimed at increasing youth education in America.

“Unfortunately, the number of young Americans who have high school degrees, are in good physical shape and are without criminal records is declining,” retired Gen. Henry “Hugh” Shelton, U.S. Army, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement. “To keep our country strong and safe, we need to ensure all young Americans get the right start in life. We need more investments in high-quality early education.”

Some 75 percent of Americans aged 17-24 are unfit to join the military when other reasons are included, such as inadequate education and criminal history, Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon’s accessions policy director, testified in March.

About one in four young Americans lack a high school diploma, and 30 percent of potential recruits who have a high school degree fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test, the report finds. In addition, one in 30 men aged 20 to 34 in the United States is behind bars.

Increased spending on recruitment bonuses during this difficult economic period helped the military meet its fiscal year 2009 recruiting goals, but report authors cautioned against relying on a continued economic downturn to staff the military.

“During economic downturns, higher numbers of well-qualified candidates seek to enlist, and the military can temporarily rely less on waivers for those with academic deficits or criminal records,” the report stated. “But a weak economy is no formula for a strong military. Once the economy begins to grow again, the challenge of finding enough high-quality recruits will return.”

Mission: Readiness is encouraging Congress to pass the Early Learning Challenge Fund to grant states $1 billion annually for 10 years for early childhood development programs.