FORT JACKSON, S.C. — In an Army platoon where the average age is 21, they call him the old man.
But when the platoon marched onto Range 18 one day last week in basic training, Pfc. Russell Dilling – at 42, the oldest-ever recruit in the modern Army – delivered. He was among a dozen of 60 recruits who dinged enough targets to qualify for the rifle certificate on his first try – a major psychological hurdle for would-be soldiers.
Private Dilling's success on Range 18 was a quiet affirmation for a graying computer repairman given a second chance when the Army raised its enlistment age limit from 35 to 42 in June. "I told my sons never to have regrets," he says a day after the shooting test as he catches breaths at a team-building challenge course deep in the Fort Jackson woods. "Well, I finally took my own advice."
In an era when professional athletes compete into their 40s, Congress approved the change to help the Army, which came up short in its recruiting effort in the first half of 2005. But some military experts say it's a criticism of the world's most powerful volunteer army that, for the first time, appears unable to rouse enough young men and women to do what has typically been a young person's job.
"In part, this decision is an indication of how difficult the recruiting environment is right now," says Representative Vic Snyder (D) of Arkansas, the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the House Armed Services Committee. "But this pushing back of the age is also part of a changing society, a healthier and longer-living society, and Army standards ought to reflect that."
So far, the move has had a minor effect on overall enlistment, with 405 recruits over age 35 and 11 over age 40 joining the Army. Still, the numbers are part of a brighter recruitment picture for the Army that made its quota for 14 straight months, according to Army officials at Fort Knox, Ky.
The Army chose the new age cap to allow for a full 20-year military career before retirement at age 62, officials say. (The Army Reserves also raised its enlistment age limit to 42 in January.)
Aging soldiers dusting off their fatigues and heading back to war is not new. When one National Guard helicopter unit from South Carolina flew to Iraq in 2003, six pilots had flown missions in Vietnam.
But there's a reason recruits are called "fresh-faced." Most have never been exposed to the rigors of reveille and the attitude of perpetual physical and mental readiness that a soldier faces. Spending 20 years of adulthood in the American mainstream – watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" and eating fried chicken – makes for a stark contrast to the Army's mess-hall food and its sweltering barracks. Never mind the 10-mile marches.
But life experience counts a lot in helping with unit cohesion, problem-solving or "stick-to-itiveness," says Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a Pentagon spokesman. Today, many 40-year-olds are in better shape than their age group was a generation ago. Such strength is an asset when confronting enemies and other problems.
"A few years ago, we had a marathon runner with a master's degree who spoke Russian, and he wanted to join the Army," says Mr. Hilferty. "We said no because he was 40. Where is the sense in that?"
The Army says it has not lowered its overall physical and character standards to meet the new age limit, though the branch already divides physical standards by age group. All older recruits so far have been assigned to rear-echelon jobs, such as supply and finance clerks. Dilling will repair small arms.
But critics say adding older recruits is a sign of desperation for the Army – and a condemnation of the war effort from broader American society.
"It's true that people are living longer and people with more experience are needed, but let's face it: This initiative is about people from the normal demographic group not signing up in the midst of an unpopular war," says Loren Thompson, a military expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington.
Dilling's age has made basic training difficult. His knees have bothered him – enough that he had to spend some time on crutches. But last week, the crutches were gone, he looked slim, and he appeared to quietly lead a small unit of younger men through the paces of the challenge course. Retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Hinnant, now a spokesman for Fort Jackson, calls Dilling "a study in determination."
Dilling has made an impact on Alpha Company's 4th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, his superiors say. Sure, he gets some jive for his age, but when he struggled through his first qualifying run, a gaggle of soldiers joined him on the track, urging him on.
"You look at someone like Pfc. Dilling, you can see by his demeanor that he's a father, that he's lived life already," says Sgt. Jarvis Pendleton, Dilling's drill sergeant. "It's a ... different picture from some of the younger people we get."
Dilling married young and started a family, even as he says he daydreamed about the soldier's life. His wife said no to the vicissitudes of a military marriage. By the time Dilling recovered from their eventual divorce, he was too old for the Army.
Or so he thought. Earlier this year, a cousin sent him a notice about the Army's decision to raise the age. He contacted his son's recruiter, who signed him up. He arrived at Fort Jackson in late July, only a few hours before his 42nd birthday. His son was already there, and sent him encouraging notes: "The same kind of advice I used to give him," says Dilling.
He's determined to make it. "Everybody said it was going to be 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, but it's the opposite for me," he says. "It's the physical stuff that gets me. If you've ever had a wife who yelled at you, dealing with a drill instructor is no big deal."