Older Recruits Seek to Prove Their Fighting Form

For years, the maximum age at which you could join the Army was 35. But with recruitment down as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army last year raised the age limit to 42.

Fort Jackson, S.C., is one of several Army posts where "mature" recruits can be found doing pushups and running laps alongside trainees fresh out of high school.

In the muggy and predawn darkness, hundreds of recruits stream around a track for a two-mile run. It's a bobbing sea of gray Army T-shirts and shaved heads.

The Chance of a Lifetime

A drill sergeant yells encouragement to the slower ones — like 38-year-old Paul Ogburn. He finally crosses the finish line. The Wisconsin native says joining up represented the chance of a lifetime.

"I wanted to sign up about 20 years ago," Ogburn says.

Most of his fellow recruits haven't even been alive for 20 years.

Ogburn is a bit thick in the middle, with bags under his eyes. Still trying to catch his breath, he says, "I heard the Army was accepting people up to the age of 42, so I figured I'd chase my dream as well."

The Army brings in about 80,000 recruits each year. Nowadays, about 1,000 of them are middle-aged recruits like Ogburn.

Obgurn has bounced from job to job, looking for a sense of purpose that he hopes to find in the Army. Before arriving at the Army post, he was a maintenance worker.

'My Children Are Nervous for Me, of Course'

Other mature recruits are divorced with grown children, eager for a new life and the Army's substantial signing bonus — about $20,000.

That includes recruit Sheila Richter, who just turned 40. She has just completed a run, and her hair is matted with sweat. She finds the runs and the road marches difficult, but says joining the Army has been a longtime dream.

"It's something I've wanted to do ever since I was in high school," Richter says. "[I] got married at an early age, had children, wanted to wait until they got older, provide a better life for my children."

Now her son is in college, and her daughter is close to finishing high school. Richter knows she might be called to serve in Iraq. She's ready for it. But her kids may not be.

"My children are nervous for me, of course, because of the war. My daughter cries. She's afraid I'll get shipped out and not return," Richter says.

Richter is about halfway through her nine weeks of training. She and her fellow recruits have no illusions about where they may end up.

Ogburn says he has no trouble with the idea of deploying to Iraq. He sees it as his chance to spread "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

"As a world-leading democracy, we have to defend that," he says.

How Old Is Too Old?

Those who train at the South Carolina base will not be front-line combat troops, such as infantry or airborne. They are support troops. Ogburn will later train to become an aviation electrician. Richter will become a supply clerk.

Col. Steve Yackley commands the recruit brigade and watches them run. He's happy to have more-seasoned recruits.

"They generally do fairly well," Yackley says, "because the maturity level is there, the desire. Because, you know, they're older. They've kind of lived some of life's journeys."

But perhaps they've lived too long to be effective soldiers, say critics like retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

"Of course we don't want 42-year-olds on first enlistments as a private in the Army," McCaffrey says.

McCaffrey commanded an Army division during the 1991 Gulf War. He says older recruits are one more sign that the Army is lowering its standards. The Army is also bringing in more recruits without high school diplomas, with criminal convictions, and with lower scores on the military's aptitude test.

"Our challenge is to get 18-, 19- to 25-year-old young men and women who can carry out physical duties that are equivalent to playing on a high-school varsity football team," McCaffrey says.

The Pentagon admits that older Army recruits are nearly twice as likely to wash out as younger ones, mostly for medical or physical reasons.

The Benefits of Age

Back at Fort Jackson's rifle range, Capt. Chad Lauro scans his crop of recruits as they lie in the dirt, shooting pop-up targets. Lauro is a fresh-faced, 31-year-old officer.

"We do have some here that are older than I am," he says. "But they come in with an open mind and are ready to train. They sort of help and guide the younger ones."

Kaija Stiehm, a 40-year-old former flight attendant and graduate of Syracuse University, says she hopes to become an officer and lead her fellow recruits.

"I'm old enough to be some of their mothers — and some do call me mom, but that's OK," Stiehm says.

Stiehm's long blond hair is stuffed under her camouflage cap. A smudge of dirt creases her face.

She still struggles with the regimented life: rising before dawn, the constant commands.

"My training has been in the airlines," she says. "I've always been in the hospitality industry. It's kind of a learning curve to have people yelling at you and telling you to move it."

People like Lauro, who barks out, "You're a stone-cold killer, aren't you, Stiehm?"

"I'm hoping to be, sir, one of these days. Working on it." With that, Stiehm pulls on her gear and heads off to join her much-younger platoon.

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