Vietnam-Era Vet Reports for Duty

Army Spc. Tom Owens during his two-mile run. i i

Army Spc. Tom Owens joined a fitness club and dropped 20 pounds after learning he could get back into the Army. During a recent fitness test for the Army, he ran two miles in 17:30, then circled back to encourage others to cross the finish line. Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR
Army Spc. Tom Owens during his two-mile run.

Army Spc. Tom Owens joined a fitness club and dropped 20 pounds after learning he could get back into the Army. During a recent fitness test for the Army, he ran two miles in 17:30, then circled back to encourage others to cross the finish line.

Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR
Owens joking with other members of his company. i i

Owens greets members of his unit, the 802nd Ordnance, during weekend training at the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Gainesville, Ga. Some soldiers are less than half his age. Owens says they learn from each other. Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR
Owens joking with other members of his company.

Owens greets members of his unit, the 802nd Ordnance, during weekend training at the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Gainesville, Ga. Some soldiers are less than half his age. Owens says they learn from each other.

Jonathan Hollada, Aurora Select for NPR

Army Spc. Tom Owens first joined the military during the Vietnam War when he was 17. He earned two Bronze Stars before leaving the service in 1992.

But nearly two years ago, when the Army raised its enlistment age limit to 42, Owens decided to sell his landscaping business and volunteer to serve his country again — at age 55.

The Army allows soldiers to subtract their years of prior military service from their age. In Owens' case, he had 14 years of active service. In the Army's eyes, this made him effectively 41 and qualified him to re-enlist as long as he passed the medical screening and fitness test —which he did. Now, Owens is assigned to the 802nd Ordnance Company, a reserve unit in Gainesville, Ga.

"You know I'm a survivor, I'm young," says Owens, who wants to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. "I stood tall in a place of hell with other Americans doing a job that nobody else wanted to do. I have no regrets. Do it all over again, you know? That's what it's all about."

On a recent Saturday morning, he and about three dozen soldiers dressed in Army fatigues were standing at attention. Many of the soldiers are in their 20s, a few are in their 30s; Owens is the only 56-year-old recruit in the bunch. The soldiers are about to be tested on their physical fitness and Owens — who lost 20 pounds to get ready for his new Army stint — is ready.

Owens, who has lived in the Atlanta area most of his life, jokes with everyone about how many push-ups and sit-ups he can do — only he's not really kidding. Within four minutes, he completes 47 push-ups and 60 sit-ups.

"I'm not gonna say anything about his age, but he's in very, very good shape," says Sgt. First Class Deborah Vincent. "And to come back in after all these years, you know, I commend him for that."

After the first part of the test ends, the soldiers head out for a two-mile run. Owens finishes in 17 and a half minutes — two minutes faster than the requirements set for his age — does an additional 25 push-ups for good measure and runs back to encourage others who've yet to finish. Owens admits that some of the younger soldiers tease him and call him "grandpa," but they also know he can outperform many of them.

"The younger soldiers look up to him," Vincent says. "If he can do stuff, they can do it."

Initially some recruiters told Owens, who never married and has no children, he wouldn't make it back in the Army. That only made him more determined.

"Tell me I can't do something and I will do it," he says. "When people said I couldn't go in the Army, I said 'I will go in the Army.'"

When battalion commander Lt. Col. Dave Johnson found out Owens was in his unit, he drove three hours to personally congratulate him.

"Maybe some other guys ... might see this and think, 'You know, the Army, maybe it's not such a bad thing,' and maybe they might come back," Johnson says. "I think it's just incredible that he's doing this."

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