Theodore's World: Older Recruits Challenge Army and Vice Versa

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June 18, 2009

Older Recruits Challenge Army and Vice Versa

Pfc. Shane Dixon, 38, right, gets advice from a fellow trainee half his age, Stephen Miles, 19, in basic training at Fort Sill, Okla.

Older Recruits Challenge Army and Vice Versa


Pfc. Shane Dixon is known as Old Dix. Specialist Jason Ness goes by Gramps. Pfc. Christopher Batson’s nom de boot camp is Pops. None of them are over 40, but to the 18-year-old soldiers in basic training here, they are as ancient as a first generation Xbox.

Yet in the three years since the Army raised its age limit for enlisting to 42, from 35, a steady stream of older recruits has joined the ranks, pushing creaky muscles through road training, learning to appreciate — or at least endure — Army chow and in some cases deploying to combat zones.

And while the number of such recruits, more than 3,800, is small by Army standards, the pace of over-35 enlistment jumped sharply in the first months of this year. Motives vary, from a yearning for midlife adventure to a desire to serve their country. But rising unemployment is also a major reason, say Army officials, recruiters and training officers.

“It’s a guaranteed job, as long as you go to work every day,” said Capt. Jared Auchey, company commander of the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia, who estimates that one in 10 of the enlistments at his high-tech marketing office are over 35. “There are no layoffs in the Army.”

The Army recruits about 80,000 soldiers a year, and the older recruits are having an impact even on basic training, Army officers say. At classes here, as many as one in seven soldiers are over 35, and many drill sergeants now look to the older soldiers as mentors, or proxy disciplinarians.

Staff Sgt. Arron Barnes, Fort Sill’s drill sergeant of the year in 2009, said the older recruits tended to bring technical skills and maturity, were easier to instruct and were often more committed than teenage soldiers.

“They contribute at a higher level because they have no other place to go,” Sergeant Barnes, 26, said. “This is their life.”

The older recruits are, however, injury prone. Rusty joints, forgotten injuries and slow-to-recover muscles cause the over-35 recruits to wash out of basic training at a somewhat higher rate than younger soldiers, said Lt. Col. Michael S. Patton, commander of a basic-training battalion here.

Specialist John D. Butts, 38, exemplifies the new breed. An aspiring writer who was a house painter outside Philadelphia for two decades, he lost his steady paycheck last November after the housing market crashed.

A part-time job at Blockbuster did not pay his rent, and when his landlord threatened to evict him, his girlfriend (now his wife) and her three teenage children, he decided radical action was required. He called an Army recruiter he had met recently and signed up for a three-year stint.

Despite years as a dedicated beer drinker and smoker, Specialist Butts made it through basic here at Fort Sill and is now training with an artillery unit that may head to South Korea this year. A tour in Afghanistan could be in the cards, he says.

Over the last two months, he has been yelled at by a 24-year-old drill sergeant, forced to inhale choking gas, done more push-ups than he cares to remember and patiently put up with wise-cracking 19-year-olds who forget to flush the toilet. So far, he has made the grade and is even considering a career in the military.

“I’ve just tried to keep my head down, keep my mouth shut and not wring necks,” Specialist Butts said.

The sagging economy, of course, has bolstered military recruiting at all age levels. But the older recruits represent a new, and perhaps more challenging, opportunity for the Army, the only service that accepts recruits over 35. (The maximum age is 35 in the Navy, 28 in the Marine Corps and 27 in the Air Force.)

It is not clear yet how well older soldiers handle the rigors of combat. The Army says it does not segregate older recruits in basic training and does not consider age when deciding where to assign or deploy them. Of the nearly 5,000 military personnel killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 600 have been over 35, most of them career soldiers. The oldest was 60-year-old Steven Hutchison, who served in Vietnam and retired from the Army in 1988 only to re-enlist in 2007 under a special program for retirees. Major Hutchison was killed last month in a bombing in Iraq.

During a break in marksmanship training at Fort Sill last week, several older soldiers said the economy had not been their only motivation for enlisting. “I didn’t want to be 75 and think back, ‘I wish I had joined the Army,’ ” said Pvt. Mark O’Brien, 36, a corrections officer from Portsmouth, N.H. “There’s nothing worse than regret.”

But for Private Batson, 35, the threat of layoffs was the driving force behind his joining. A mechanical engineer from Utah with five children, he was spared when his company laid off workers last year, but the close call worried him. Deciding he needed a fall-back option, he turned to the National Guard.

Now, if he is laid off and cannot find work, he figures he can go full time with the National Guard or the regular Army. In exchange for that job security, he says there is a good chance he will do a tour in Afghanistan.
“My natural priority is my family,” Private Batson said. “I’ll do anything I have to do to take care of them.”

Wild Thing's comment.......

I think this would only strengthen the Armed Forces. Each age group has something to share with the other and the experience of the older recruits would be valuable .

Posted by Wild Thing at June 18, 2009 04:44 AM


Hmmm. If the Army will raise the age limit a few more decades I may just make a trip to the recruiting office. If I can find it, and my nurse will help me, and I can remember what I went there for.

Posted by: TomR at June 18, 2009 12:04 PM

had they raised the age 10 years ago, I would have joined. I missed the age by half a year when I inquired, and now have a few injuries that would likely exclude me (but I'd still try, and if 'drafted', would go at any age.) The older recruits will hang JUST FINE in battle. They will definitely add an important dimension, and maturity that the Army is, and has been lacking.

Posted by: pontiff alex at June 18, 2009 01:15 PM

I always told the hippies, 'I beat the draft'. That always got their attention, Yeah how'd you do that,...I enlisted.

Posted by: Mark at June 18, 2009 04:09 PM

Tom, "remember what I went there for"....

that is so funny.LOL

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 18, 2009 06:09 PM

Alex, it will be extra work for some of the
older ones to get in shape but I bet they
do great with it.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 18, 2009 06:13 PM


Good one Mark.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 18, 2009 06:14 PM