Margie Black had wanted to enter the military as a teenager, but having her first child at 19 put off her ambitions.
So when she learned the Army raised its enlistment age, Black, now a 41-year-old grandmother from West Columbia, Texas, didn’t hesitate to join. The decision took “about 30 seconds,” she said.
On Friday, Pvt. Black worked on her marksmanship skills here, while her 21-year-old daughter was at Army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” Black said. “If I do that, I can handle it.”
Older soldiers like her are showing up more often at Army training bases across the country since Congress gave the service approval earlier this year to raise its enlistee age limit, which had been 35, to just under 42 years.
“We’re finding there’s a lot of people out there that wanted to join, and age was their only disqualifier,” said Leslie Ann Sully, a spokeswoman for the Army’s local recruiting battalion near Fort Jackson.
“Lots of people (over 35) are fit and are living longer, and they figure they can do this,” Sully said.
Needs force policy change
The change came as the Army fell well short of its recruiting goals last year. It needs to bring in 80,000 recruits this year and is pushing a package of higher enlistment bonuses and pay levels for certain jobs, as well as financial incentives for former soldiers to re-enlist.
The limit to enter the part-time Army Reserve was raised to 40 in March 2005 and the Army raised it to 40 for active duty in January. Then, both organizations raised it to 42 in June.
The Army has taken in 405 men and women in the active duty and 711 in the Reserves who were 35 or older as of Aug. 4, according to Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
In interviews, most of the older soldiers training at Fort Jackson said they were fulfilling ambitions put aside years ago.
“It has always been a dream of mine to be in the military and now I am fulfilling that dream,” Black said.
As she took a break from learning how to handle her M-16 rifle, the former corrections officer said her major challenge in the first three weeks of training was climbing and rappelling the 50-foot “Victory Tower.”
Black is afraid of heights.
“I cried all the way up and all the way down, but my drill sergeant talked to me the whole time and got me through it,” she said with a smile.
A family affair
On the parade grounds here, about 5,000 family and friends gathered Friday to applaud the 1,800 soldiers who graduated from basic training.
Russell Dilling, 42, of San Antonio, and his 19-year-old son, Robert, had tears in their eyes as they hugged afterward. The younger Dilling graduated from basic training.
Russell Dilling is scheduled to finish Oct. 6 and is hoping his knees hold out. He wants to become a small arms repairman.
“When he graduates, I am sure I will be as proud of him as he is of me today,” said Robert Dilling, who wants to train as a combat medic.
Russell Dilling said he got to Fort Jackson at 11 p.m. earlier this summer — one hour before his 42nd birthday and the Army’s new deadline. “It’s been tough physically, but my company has been pretty supportive,” he said.
Dilling’s drill sergeant, Steven Proffitt, called the father “a real leader. He shows these kids how to do it.”
Pfc. Kimberly Brown, 37, couldn’t resist cupping her 18-year-old son Derek Noe’s face in jubilation after they’d both been released from graduation formation.
With five children to support, the work in the Army is welcome, she said. Her husband Robert, a retired Army first sergeant, supported her, she said.
Noe is returning to finish his senior year in high school in Boone, N.C., while his mother goes to Fort Eustis, Va., to enter helicopter mechanic training.
“They called me ’Mama’s boy,’ but I knew they were just messing with me,” Noe said of others in his unit. “It never got to me. I’m proud of what she’s doing.”