RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Going into its seventh year of war, the army is greatly in need of new recruits and is happy to take those who are much older. In this part of the program we'll hear about one of them - a new recruit who turned 56 this week. Specialist Tom Owens fought in Viet Nam, two tours, while serving 14 years in the Army. Then he ran a landscaping business, which he sold when he learned that his prior service qualified him to rejoin the army.
He's now assigned to an Army Reserve unit in Gainesville, Georgia. NPR's Kathy Lohr has this story.
KATHY LOHR: Specialist Tom Owens enlisted in the Army when he was 17 years old. Now almost 40 years later, he's back.
Unidentified Man #1: Company…
Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #1: Attention.
LOHR: It's 7:15 on Saturday morning and three dozens soldiers dressed in Army fatigues stand at attention. Many are in their 20s, some even in their 30s, but no one stands out more than Tom Owens. Six-three, 220 pounds and an Army buzz cut that took off most of his gray hair.
Unidentified Man #1: Stand at…
Unidentified Man #2: Stand at…
Unidentified Man #1: …ease.
LOHR: Here in formation is about the only time you'll catch Owens without his infectious smile. The soldiers are about to be tested on their physical fitness so they head to a local junior college. Owens is more than ready.
Mr. TOM OWENS (Soldier): Are you going to be my (unintelligible). Come on.
LOHR: Even before the test begins you can see how this Vietnam vet interacts with younger soldiers. He's a take-charge kind of guy and stops to adjust the beret for his grader, Specialist Chad Evans. More than three decades separate the two.
Mr. OWENS: I'm trying to get him on the right path to being a good leader. Let me fix your hat.
Mr. CHAD EVANS (Specialist): (Unintelligible)
Mr. OWENS: Yeah. You must have slept in it last night.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OWENS: What do you want me to do?
Mr. EVANS: Well, if you could…
LOHR: Owens jokes with everyone about how many pushups and sit-ups he can do. Only he's not kidding.
Mr. EVANS: Get ready, get set, begin.
Mr. OWENS: Okay. I'm at one, two…
LOHR: In the two minutes allotted for each exercise, this 56-year-old completes 47 pushups and 60 sit-ups. Sergeant First Class Deborah Vincent is among those watching.
Ms. DEBORAH VINCENT (Sergeant First Class): I'm not going to say anything about his age but he's in very, very good shape. And to come back in after all these years, you know, I commend him for that because the younger soldiers look up to him. If he can do stuff, they can do it, and you see him on his PT tests.
LOHR: After the first part of the test is over, the soldiers head for a two-mile run. Owens finishes in 17-and-a-half minutes, then he drops, does another 25 pushups and runs back to encourage others who have yet to finish.
Mr. OWENS: Let's go, (unintelligible). Looking good. You make it look so easy.
LOHR: Back at the Army Reserve Center, the veteran shows me some old photos taken when he served in Vietnam. He was tall, thin and 18 years old, but looks much younger.
Mr. OWENS: I was on the DMZ. That's North Vietnam there flying on that chopper. They're fixing to drop us off into the field. They're shooting at us, and we're shooting at them - very dangerous.
LOHR: He remembers, well, patrolling in the northernmost reaches of South Vietnam. In May 1971, a rocket exploded in a bunker killing 29 members of his unit and injuring dozens of others. Owens received a bronze star and several other medals.
Mr. OWENS: You know, I'm a survivor and I'm young. I stool tall in a place of hell with other Americans doing a job that nobody else wanted to do. I had no regrets to do it all over again. You know, that's what it's all about.
LOHR: Owens admits some of the younger soldiers tease him and call him grandpa, but they also know he can outperform many of them. He did finish the Ironman triathlon back in the 1980s. Initially even some recruiters told him he wouldn't make it back in the Army. That only made him more determined.
Mr. OWENS: Tell me I can't do something and I will do it. You know, when people say I couldn't go in the Army, I said I would go in the Army.
LOHR: Since the Iraq War began, the Army has raised its age limit to attract more recruits and increase its ranks. Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Dave Johnson drove three hours to congratulate Owens, personally.
Mr. DAVE JOHNSON (Lieutenant Colonel, Battalion Commander): Maybe some other guys that haven't reached a mandatory retirement age might see this and think, you know, the Army, you know, maybe it's not such a bad thing and maybe they might come back. So, I think it's just incredible that he's doing this.
Unidentified Man #3: Open rank.
LOHR: This new, or should I say old, recruit is ready to be back in the thick of things.
Mr. OWENS: I didn't join the Army to be behind a desk somewhere. My intention is to be on the frontlines with them and supporting a war effort the best I can.
Unidentified Man #3: Second and third, fourth squad at ease.
Mr. OWENS: When Tom Owens left the military in 1992, he was a sergeant. But Owens had to drop a rank when he rejoined the reserves. He expects to make sergeant again later this year and then hopes to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.