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The U.S. military wants to expand its forces by 92,000 troops over the next five years. And to meet that goal, recruiters are drawing on a bigger pool of applicants. The Army has lowered high school test standards for some recruits, and also raised its age limit.
Reporter Eric Niiler found a 42-year-old private trying to pass muster at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Unidentified Man: Forward.
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ERIC NIILER: The soldiers here at Aberdeen's Ordnance School are like soldiers everywhere. They march from barracks to classroom, from classroom to lunch, and then back again. This company is learning how to fix weapons, everything from pistols to tanks.
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NIILER: Tucked beneath the rows of black berets and Army uniforms is Private First Class Russell 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.
Private First Class RUSSELL DILLING (U.S. Army): It was something I've always wanted to do for the past 24 years - I've wanted to join the Army. I got married first. And my wife did not want to live that lifestyle of moving and everything, so I chose to be a family man, instead.
NIILER: 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.
Pfc. DILLING: I would go out there and take walks, three or four times a day, about a two-mile walk each time. I would wear a garbage sack, just so I could sweat it off as much as possible. And I wouldn't eat anything. All I would eat or drink was Slim-Fast.
NIILER: 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.
Now, instead of commuting to work, Dilling rolls out of his bunk at 4:30 every morning for a mandatory exercise. Captain Teresa Marvin is Dilling's commanding officer.
Captain TERESA MARVIN (U.S. Army Commanding Officer): He's able to be the responsible one in the squad or the platoon. He can assist the soldiers into areas where they feel they lack in experience.
NIILER: Captain Marvin says all their 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.
Capt. MARVIN: A lot of soldiers came in from broken homes and these new soldiers of the older age - they act as a father figure for little soldiers.
NIILER: Private Kyle Riegel who's all of 19, shares a table with Dilling in the mess hall. The two sometimes travel off base on weekends.
Private KYLE RIEGEL (U.S. Army): He's almost as old as my dad, but it's cool having him as a friend, someone mature to talk to every now and then, hang out with.
NIILER: 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's pulling in $18,400 a year, much less than his civilian salary, but he seems happy-go-lucky.
Pfc. DILLING: I'm really doing pretty good here in the Army. I'm actually doing better in many respects because I'm being fed and I'm being clothed. I have a place, a roof over my head. And I have no real need to spend the money that I am making other than maybe for DVDs, for entertainment purposes or something like that, you know.
NIILER: Private Dilling graduates soon. He'll be joining two of his sons, who are also in the Army. One is a reservist; another is training to be a combat medic. But Dilling will not be headed to the front lines. He'll be fixing guns at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.
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