By Michael Felberbaum
Monday, December 11, 2006
PETERSBURG, Va. -- As the World Trade Center rubble smoldered, Sharon Samuel felt determined to do something for her adopted country; she decided to enlist in the Army.
But the Army told the Brooklyn hairdresser she was too old.
"I wanted to serve. I wanted to give back," said the 40-year-old Trinidad native. "I have felt the pain New Yorkers felt."
Samuel got a second chance this year when the Army increased its maximum enlistment age to 42. So, off she went to Fort Lee, about 25 miles south of Richmond, for training in logistical support.
She has joined more than 1,460 people in the 35-to-42 age bracket who have enlisted in the Army and Army Reserve since Congress authorized extending the enlistment cutoff beyond age 35.
The change is part of an effort to help the Army reach its recruitment goals amid an unpopular war and mounting casualties.
It is also part of an effort to become more inclusive, said Col. Kevin A. Shwedo, director of operations, plans and training for the Army Accessions Command, which oversees recruiting.
"The overall population that you're talking about is minuscule, but what we're gaining in terms of experience and maturity and desire is phenomenal," Shwedo said. "Virtually every one of them is called Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, but they bring a special flair to every soldier in that group."
Of the nation's military services, the Army has the highest age limit, with the others ranging from 27 to 34, and up to 39 for reserve components. Most branches consider waivers for those over the age limit who have prior military service.
Many of the older recruits are looking for a lifestyle change.
"I was comfortable in civilian life and did that 9-to-5 thing all the time for a long time. I was just in a rut," said 39-year-old Pfc. Randy Covington. "When they changed the age, it seemed like the opportunity came back for me."
For many others, it's the fulfillment of a deep-seated sense of duty.
"When I'd see a soldier walk down the street when I was a small child, they'd look so disciplined, so sure," said Pvt. Aletha North-Williams, a 41-year-old mother of two from Houston. "I wanted that for myself, and it has always stuck in my soul."
Adjusting to the rigors of military life can be a challenge for older recruits -- even for someone such as North-Williams, a former prison guard.
"I know I can't be 18, but I've tried," she joked.
Before shipping off to basic training, recruits must meet physical standards and those 40 and older are given additional medical screenings.
They must undergo the same training exercises as younger recruits.
"A bullet and a bayonet don't discriminate," Shwedo said. "As a result, our training program has to ensure that every soldier is going to be able to outmaneuver, outfight and win on today's battlefield."
As if the grueling physical training is not taxing enough, the older recruits must also deal with barrack-mates whose average age is 21.
"They have the college-aged mind and the high school mind," said Pfc. Caroll Martinez, 42, of Kansas City, Mo. "I'm so beyond that."
Covington agrees -- especially after being called "Grandpa" by his military peers. But he had the last laugh, receiving the highest fitness score of his entire company in basic training.
"You're older, a little bit more mature than these younger kids," said Covington, from Lehi, Utah. "I felt like I just got thrown into a high school."
Still, there are benefits to mixing older recruits with those fresh out of high school or college.
"What they're actually able to do is take some of our younger soldiers and show them some of the things they're capable of doing," said Carlton J. Branch, command sergeant major of the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade at Fort Lee. "In a way it encourages the younger soldiers to realize that they can do some of the same things."