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55-year-old Vietnam vet re-enlists
Posted on April 02, 2008

All Veterans Issues You are only too old when you sit down and give up. Look at the story below to see what it takes to be a soldier.

Danny "Greasy" Belcher, Executive Director
Task Force Omega of KY Inc.
Vietnam Infantry Sgt. 68-69
"D" Troop 7th Sqdn. 1st Air Cav

55-year-old Vietnam vet re-enlists

Army life never got old for Doraville landscaper

By APRIL HUNT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 04/01/08

The sun has just cleared the northern Alabama mountains, but nothing shines more brightly than Army Spc. Tom Owens' smile as he joshes with the fellow soldiers he calls his grandkids.

"C'mon, show that big-man move," the 6-foot-3-inch Owens taunts a reluctant Spc. Jericar Martinez, as the smaller man tries to put him in a headlock.

Spc. Tom Owens has no trouble keeping up with recruits half his age. After training he heads for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
,br> "He can't. He's got to worry about your osteoporosis," teases Spc. Brandon Crabtree.

Staff Sgt. Michael Cookson, the highest-ranking man waiting with the others to return their training gear, joins the mocking — "Yeah, Owens, it's all fun and games 'til you break a hip," — then turns serious to explain to a visitor.

"I tell him, 'You're 55 years old. You've got nothing to prove,' " Cookson says.

Owens, a Doraville landscaper who has become one of the oldest recruits in the history of the Army, sees it differently.

Last December, the decorated Vietnam veteran who spent 14 years in the Army and Army National Guard re-enlisted — 15 years after he ostensibly left military service for good. He recently completed training to be an ammo specialist and expects to be sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Owens may be the only member of his company who wears bifocals. His long johns, issued by the Army during his stint in Vietnam, are probably older than anyone in his unit.

But Owens re-upped, he says, because he has been a soldier since his days serving in the demilitarized zone in Vietnam.

"I learned values in the Army, how to conduct myself and stand up for what's right," Owens said. "I could be home, getting fat and drinking a beer, or I could step up and show these soldiers today how much I appreciate what they're doing."

Owens' love of being a soldier has never waned. It started after a high school guidance counselor said he wouldn't be fit for college. Owens, a Chamblee native, had suffered a head injury when he was 12 and was in a coma for months. The counselor said he would never catch up.

In 1969, when he was in 10th grade, Owens took his GED and enlisted. He was 17.

He spent a year as an infantryman in Vietnam, enduring daily rocket and sniper attacks. Of about 100 men in his unit, 29 didn't survive. For his service in Vietnam, Owens was awarded two Bronze Stars.

The Army released him in 1972, a year early as part of a reduction in force. Owens returned to DeKalb County and went to college after all, earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Georgia State in 1975. He thought he wanted to be a cop, then held a handful of jobs before realizing he missed being a soldier.

He joined the Army National Guard in 1981, working as a unit administrator until he went back to active duty in 1987. In 1992, he was discharged as a sergeant as part of another reduction in force.

"I didn't want to go. It was involuntary," Owens said.

Owens returned to DeKalb, setting up his own landscaping business in Doraville and continuing a strict fitness routine. For more than 15 years, he has run for 90 minutes virtually every morning, lifted weights for an hour, then headed to a nearby McDonald's for coffee.

"I don't drink Starbucks coffee or watch reality TV," Owens said. "I'm just a regular guy who drinks coffee at McDonald's. I want to be with regular people."

And, he wants to be as close as possible to "regular soldiers." He tried to re-up after Sept. 11, but was told he was too old.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained the Army's ranks, so officials raised the enlistment age. The limit has been just under 42 since 2006.

Re-enlisting soldiers get credit for time served. The Army takes a recruit's age and subtracts the previous service. At 55, with 14 years' prior service, Owens just makes the threshold at 41.

The Army has hit its annual recruiting goal of 80,000 since raising the age limit, though records show few new soldiers are in the older age range. In the fiscal year that ended in November, only 378 recruits were 40 or older.

"Older recruits were needlessly being denied an opportunity," said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox. "If you're fit to be a soldier, there is nothing age-related that affects your ability."

When Owens found out the Army had increased the age limit, he immediately went to a recruiter. He spent the next year shedding 20 pounds, down to his current 230 pounds, and began slowly selling off his business. He took a pay cut and demotion to specialist to rejoin the Army. He gets a $15,000 signing bonus as a returning soldier and can re-earn his sergeant's stripes over his six-year stint.

He reported to Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala., in January. The requirement for his age included doing 29 sit-ups and 24 pushups and running two miles in 19 minutes and 30 seconds. Owens did 55 sit ups and 50 pushups — exceeding the minimums for younger soldiers — and ran the course in 16 minutes and 55 seconds — just 19 seconds over the younger soldiers' minimums.

"You'll see 18, 19-year-olds who can't do that," said Sgt. Samuel Sykes, a soldier from Conyers who briefly stepped in as Owens' platoon leader. "We call him Old Head, but his attitude is straight-up,"

Last week the man known as Old Head to some and Grandpa to most graduated from training. Like the men half his age, Owens is expected to be deployed into combat later this year.

If he is sent to Iraq, he will serve under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, who is six months younger than Owens.

Never married and without kids, Owens has made the Army his family. He stays in touch with the 75-year-old sergeant major who commanded his unit in Vietnam. The sergeant major drove 12 hours straight from Florida to see Owens graduate.

A dozen Vietnam veterans from Atlanta also drove out for the ceremony. Owens was proud to represent the older soldiers, he said, and thrilled to again be in uniform.

"They say, either be a leader, a follower or get out of the way. Well, I'm a follower. I will follow and do my duty," Owens said.

Back in line, the younger soldiers continue teasing Owens.

"It's not your Granddaddy's Army. You better learn technology," says Staff Sgt. Cookson, 31.

"Forget cellphones. Did they even have Kevlar when you were first in," asks the 23-year-old Crabtree.

Owens loves to play along. He tells them, "I was in the Army when Moses was a corporal."

Even as he says it, Owens can't stop beaming.

IN SHAPE TO SERVE

Minimum requirements for Army recruits, according to the U.S. Army:

MEN

Age 17: 47 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, 16:36 two-mile run

Age 41: 29 sit-ups, 24 push-ups, 19:30 two-mile run

WOMEN

Age 17: 47 sit-ups, 13 push-ups, 19:42 two-mile run

Age 41: 29 sit ups, 6 push ups, 24:06 two-mile run

RECRUITING GOALS

Year Active Army Army Reserve

goal actual goal actual

2003 73,800 74,132 26,400 27,365

2004 77,000 77,587 21,200 21,278

2005 80,000 73,373 22,175 19,400

2006 80,000 80,635 25,500 25,378

2007 80,000 80,410 26,500 27,055

AVERAGE AGE

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

Army 21.2 21.3 20.8 21.3 21.7

Army Reserve 22.3 22.9 21 20.6 20.5

Copyright© 2008 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 
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