Friday, September 08, 2006

Old-Timers in Green

Wednesday's Christian Science Monitor has an article on a topic I'm very familiar with: people over 35 who join the Army. I haven't really blogged about my own military experiences to date, so this is a good chance to start:

In an Army platoon where the average age is 21, they call him the old man.

But when the platoon marched onto Range 18 one day last week in basic training, Pfc. Russell Dilling - at 42, the oldest-ever recruit in the modern Army - delivered. He was among a dozen of 60 recruits who dinged enough targets to qualify for the rifle certificate on his first try - a major psychological hurdle for would-be soldiers.

Damn, he qualified with his weapon on the first try. Let's just say I didn't, and leave it at that.

Private Dilling's success on Range 18 was a quiet affirmation for a graying computer repairman given a second chance when the Army raised its enlistment age limit from 35 to 42 in June. "I told my sons never to have regrets," he says a day after the shooting test as he catches breaths at a team-building challenge course deep in the Fort Jackson woods. "Well, I finally took my own advice."

In an era when professional athletes compete into their 40s, Congress approved the change to help the Army, which came up short in its recruiting effort in the first half of 2005. But some military experts say it's a criticism of the world's most powerful volunteer army that, for the first time, appears unable to rouse enough young men and women to do what has typically been a young person's job.

When I joined last fall, the age limit was 39, and only for National Guard and Army Reserve. The active Army age limit was still 35. Would I have gone active duty if I had the choice? Probably not, just because I still want to keep at least one foot in the library world. I always have the option of switching over to the active Army, and I have thought seriously about it.

As for the statement that the Army is "unable to rouse enough young men and women" to fill the ranks, the author himself belies this assessment just two paragraphs later:

So far, the move has had a minor effect on overall enlistment, with 405 recruits over age 35 and 11 over age 40 joining the Army. Still, the numbers are part of a brighter recruitment picture for the Army that made its quota for 14 straight months, according to Army officials at Fort Knox, Ky.

My own experience reflects these numbers. In my 55 person Basic Training platoon, there was me at 38, two 34 year old men, two 36 year old women, and a 39 year old woman. Out of 205 people in our company, there was a 40 year old and at least one other 38 year old (both men).

At AIT, there was me, a 39 year old, and a 38 year old, out of a 90 person platoon. In both Basic and AIT, the overwhelming number of soldiers fell within the 18-25 age range.

The paragraph that struck me as being most relevant to my Initial Entry Training experience is this one:

But there's a reason recruits are called "fresh-faced." Most have never been exposed to the rigors of reveille and the attitude of perpetual physical and mental readiness that a soldier faces. Spending 20 years of adulthood in the American mainstream - watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" and eating fried chicken - makes for a stark contrast to the Army's mess-hall food and its sweltering barracks. Never mind the 10-mile marches.

In some ways, I did have a harder time adjusting to the Army then my younger comrades. It wasn't in terms of the physical aspects, though. Between Basic and AIT, I passed all four of my PT tests. While I couldn't do things quite as fast as some of the young guys, I could still do them. The other over 35 recruits did just as well if not better.

I had two main sources of difficulty in Basic Training. One was Basic Rifle Marksmanship, which I struggled with before finally qualifying. The other was psychological, and the Monitor article hints at it. This was the culture shock that resulted from going from a fully independent, self-reliant adult to essentially being treated as a child under lockdown. The loss of privacy, the second class status you have as a recruit in Basic, and the total lack of control over my life all bothered me more than any of the physical challenges.

If you are curious why I didn't blog during Basic, it's because I was forbidden any access to computers, as well as books, magazines, newspapers, and a host of other things. This sense of almost complete isolation from the world was the most difficult part of Basic Training for me. In AIT, where we were allowed far more freedom, this ceased to be an issue.

Speaking of things that bothered me, there's this part of the Monitor article:

But critics say adding older recruits is a sign of desperation for the Army - and a condemnation of the war effort from broader American society.

"It's true that people are living longer and people with more experience are needed, but let's face it: This initiative is about people from the normal demographic group not signing up in the midst of an unpopular war," says Loren Thompson, a military expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington.

Of course, just a few paragraphs earlier, the reporter from the Monitor revealed that "people from the normal demographic group" are in fact signing up in the numbers needed. The North Carolina National Guard has already exceeded its recruiting goal for the year, and I can assure you that it's not because of old guys like me.

The implication that over 35 soldiers are merely a poor substitute for younger recruits is particularly insulting. We bring maturity, life experience, work skills, and educational background that most 18-22 year olds simply don't have. Far from being a "sign of desperation", we older recruits are actually a genuine asset to the Army.

Finally, this paragraph illustrates the camaraderie that is the key to making it through Basic:

Dilling has made an impact on Alpha Company's 4th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, his superiors say. Sure, he gets some jive for his age, but when he struggled through his first qualifying run, a gaggle of soldiers joined him on the track, urging him on.

This is exactly what happens in Basic, because I benefited from similar displays of support. In fact, there's almost no way I would have made it through Basic without it. Unless you're a total douchebag, the men and women in your platoon will support you 110%. This camaraderie is what I miss most about the Army.

Overall, I'm glad I decided to join the Guard, and proud that I somehow managed to survive Initial Entry Training. Whatever "hardships" I had to endure pale beside the sacrifices of those who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Good luck to PFC Dilling. If I made it, he certainly can.


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