Army accepting older recruits; some make it family affair

Published 11:21 pm Saturday, August 19, 2006

One of the Army’s oldest recruits watched his 19-year-old son graduate from basic training on Friday, but 42-year-old Russell Dilling of San Antonio wasn’t the only proud parent in uniform.

A 37-year-old mother and her 18-year-old son from North Carolina graduated together at the same ceremony, and just over the hill, a 41-year-old grandmother was working on her marksmanship skills.

These older soldiers are showing up more often here and at Army training bases across the country since the service got approval from Congress earlier this year to raise its enlistee age limit, which had been at 35, to just under 42 years.

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“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.”

The change came as the Army fell well short of its recruiting goals last year and needs to bring in 80,000 recruits this year. It also 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 age limit has been climbing recently. The limit to enter the part-time Army Reserve was raised to 40 in March of 2005 and the Army raised it for active duty to 40 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 Army Reserve who were 35 or older as of Aug. 4 of this year, 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,” said 41-year-old Pvt. Margie Black of West Columbia, Texas, the grandmother of a 9-month-old.

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. He’s a good motivator,” Black said with a wide smile.

She had wanted to enter the military as a teen, but having her first child at 19 put off her ambitions.

When her 21-year-old daughter discussed entering the Army, Black said she joked with the recruiter about joining herself. She said she acted “in about 30 seconds” once she heard the age limit had been raised.

Now, her daughter is in Army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“I’m taking it one day at a time. If I do that, I can handle it,” Black said.

On the parade grounds, about 5,000 family and friends gathered Friday under the hot sun to applaud the 1,800 soldiers who graduated from basic training.

Both the Dillings had tears in their eyes as they hugged once the ceremony was over.

“When he graduates, I am sure I will be as proud of him as I he is of me today,” said 19-year-old Robert Dillings, who wants to go on to train as a combat medic. The elder Dilling, who worked in aviation repair before joining, said he wants to become a small arms repairman.

He is scheduled to finish Oct. 6, he said, and is hoping his knees hold out.

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,” said Dilling.

Dilling’s drill sergeant, Steven Proffitt, called the father “a real motivator. He shows discipline. He’s a real leader. He shows these kids how to do it.”

And he wasn’t the only one showing emotion. Thirty-seven-year-old Pfc. Kimberly Brown 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, said Brown. Her husband Robert, a retired Army first sergeant, “supported me all the way,” she said.

The mother and son ended up in the same battalion after Brown suffered stress fractures in her feet, delaying her training by several weeks.

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 training to be a helicopter mechanic.

“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.”