Eric Niiler, NPR
PFC Russell Dilling of San Antonio, Texas, will join two of his sons in the Army.
Eric Niiler, NPR
Dilling looks up from the inside of an howitzer he's learning to repair at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Dilling looks up from the inside of an howitzer he's learning to repair at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Eric Niiler, NPR
Eric Niiler, NPR
Dilling is more than twice as old as the other Army recruits in his training class.
Dilling is more than twice as old as the other Army recruits in his training class. Eric Niiler, NPR
Military drills are usually not associated with people older than 40. But the Pentagon wants to expand U.S. forces by 92,000 troops over the next five years. To meet that goal, recruiters are drawing on a bigger pool of applicants.
Last year, the Army lowered high-school test standards for some recruits, and raised its age limit.
At Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, one new private recently sought to pass muster — at age 42.
The soldiers at Aberdeen's Ordnance School are like soldiers everywhere. They march from barracks to classroom, from classroom to lunch and then back again, to learn how to fix weapons — everything from pistols to tanks.
Tucked beneath the rows of black berets and army uniforms is PFC Russsell Dilling. He's from Texas, twice divorced with four grown children. Bored with his job as a factory inspector, last year he got a chance to join the Army.
"It's something I've wanted to do for the past 24 years," Dilling says. "I got married... I chose to be a family man instead."
To get into the Army, Dilling had to lose weight. Quickly. He didn't join a gym, but he explained his rapid weight-loss program while eating lunch at the mess hall.
"I would go out there and take walks, about two miles at a time, and wear a garbage sack to sweat it off," he says. "And I wouldn't eat anything but Slim-Fast."
Dilling says he lost 35 pounds in less than a month and arrived at Army basic training on his 42nd birthday. For the next nine weeks, he jumped over barricades and hauled his pack around just like the 19- and 20-year-olds alongside him.
Instead of commuting to work, Dilling rolls out of his bunk at 4:30 every morning for mandatory exercise.
Capt. Teresa Marvin is Dilling's commanding officer.
"He's able to be the responsible one in the squad or platoon and is able to assist these soldiers where they feel they are lacking experience," she says.
Marvin says older soldiers may have a place in the new Army, especially those with technical skills like Dilling. Old guys may not run as fast, but Marvin says they have wisdom on their side.
"A lot of soldiers came in from broken homes, and a lot of soldiers from this older age act as a father figure," she says.
Private Kyle Riegel, who is 19, shares a table with Dilling in the mess hall. They sometimes travel off base on weekends.
"He's almost as old as my dad, but it's cool having him as a friend," Riegel says of Dilling. "Someone mature to talk with now and then."
For his part, Dilling says he likes the regimen of Army life. There's a liberation of not having to make your own choices. As an E-3 private, he pulls in $18,400 a year — much less than his civilian salary. But he seems happy-go-lucky.
"I'm actually doing pretty good here in the Army," he says. "I'm actually doing better... I'm being fed, I'm being clothed, roof over my head — I have no real need to spend the money I'm making except for DVDs for entertainment purposes or something like that, you know."
Dilling is due to graduate Feb. 5. He will join two of his sons, who are also in the Army. One is a reservist, another training to be a combat medic. But Dillling will not be headed to the front lines. He'll be fixing guns at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.