Army welcomes older recruits looking for stability

TAMPA — Kim Medeiros jogs around her block in Brandon wearing a sauna suit. Then the 41-year-old mother of three pulls off the trash bag-like poncho, angles herself on a picnic table and starts knocking out pushups.

Medeiros joins the Army in September. She says it offers her a new, more fulfilling career path than her current job as a court clerk.

While young people just out of high school remain the target demographic for military enlistment, a growing number of older recruits are signing up, some over the age of 40.

Experts say it's a byproduct of the weak economy.

Local Army recruiters say they are seeing the shift. Instead of dealing almost exclusively with kids trying to find their life paths, they are now talking to older breadwinners seeking financial stability for their families.

The average enlistee in the military, who usually has just a high school diploma, makes about $43,000 a year to start, according to the Department of Defense. That includes a housing allowance, a subsistence allowance and federal tax advantages. Older, more educated recruits can make more.

The Navy says it also is getting more interest from older recruits, though its age cutoff is 35, seven years lower than the Army's. Both the Air Force and Marine Corps have an age limit of 28.

Medeiros says she always wanted to join the Army, but as a single mom of three boys, she never had the chance.

"I've been at the same job 10 years, and I haven't gotten a raise in five," she said. "I'm dead-end. I don't like to be dead-end."

Last summer, when she learned the age limit had been raised to 42 and that she could join when her twins turned 18, Medeiros went to a recruiting station.

Her 23-year-old son had joined the Army a few years ago and serves as a mechanic in Iraq. One of her 18-year-old sons will join shortly after she does.

Her only son not joining the Army, Robert O'Brien, 18, said he's proud of what his mom has accomplished, though he'll miss her when she leaves for basic training.

"I know she'll be able to get through it," he said. "She raised three kids on her own."

• • •

All branches of the military say they are on track to meet or exceed their recruitment goals for 2010. Local recruiters say the down economy and the traditional patriotism of people who live in the South work in their favor.

In fact, there is so much interest the military can now afford to be more selective about whom it chooses.

Ninety-five percent of military enlistees in 2009 had a high school diploma, according to the Department of Defense. Recruits with only a GED also need at least 15 college credit hours to be considered.

The military won't accept anyone with a felony record. And a full 75 percent of today's youth don't qualify for service, about half of them due to physical issues like weight, according to the Department of Defense.

Then there are the parents. In a time when the United States is involved in two wars, recruiters say many have no interest in their children signing up for a tour of duty.

"The parents are just not having it at all," said Staff Sgt. Alfred Jackson, a recruiter in Seminole. "The parents are downright rude when you call their kids."

Since the age limit for Army service was raised in 2005 from 35 to 40, and then to 42 in 2006, the percentage of enlistees in the 17-to-21 age bracket has declined significantly.

In 2005, 71.2 percent of Army recruits were 21 or younger. In 2009, it was down to 55.9 percent.

All those considerations make adults over the age of 25 prime targets. Recruiters say they are especially interested in a steady paycheck, career opportunities and benefits for their families.

"Stability. It's all about stability," Jackson said. "As long as we can provide an answer to show them that 'yes, it's a stable life,' that's all they really want to hear."

Will Joiner, 28, of Brandon worked jobs fixing windshields and installing cable for 10 years. When he got fired, he realized he had nothing to show for those years, he said.

"One day, I just thought to myself, I haven't really advanced myself," he said. He thought about joining the Air Force, but with its age cutoff of 28, he was too old.

Joiner ships out for Army basic training on Aug. 24.

"I don't have a wife or kids, so I don't really think I have a problem with being deployed," he said. "I'm just trying to become a Green Beret."

• • •

Sgt. 1st Class Wesley Harrell, who heads the Brandon recruiting station, said many of the people between the ages of 25 and 37 who come in wanted to join the Army earlier in life. Jackson said the average age of people he enlists is between 25 and 30.

They ask about things like health benefits. Harrell requires the spouses of recruits to come in and talk to him about their concerns. He wants to be able to answer their questions, and to make sure recruits have the family support they need.

"We aren't there just to take you away," Harrell said. "We take care of the families, too."

Mycah Thomas wanted out of her job working as a mental health technician at a Seminole-area hospital. But at 30 years old, with a high school education and a family of three kids and a husband to help support, her options were limited.

Around Thanksgiving, she started considering a military career. She will start basic training in September.

Thomas said her husband was wary at first, but now believes it's the best decision for their family. He declined to speak to a Times reporter.

"I thought about it when I was 18, but I didn't go because I wasn't in the same mind frame that I'm in now that I'm older," she said.

Thomas hopes to go back to school and become a registered nurse. She couldn't afford the education without the Army paying for it.

"I feel it gave me a purpose to do something with myself," she said. "I think it's awesome. I think it's probably the best choice I ever made."

Hilary Lehman can be reached at hlehman@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

This story includes a correction. The annual starting salary of $43,000 a year includes a housing allowance, a subsistence allowance and federal tax advantages.

Army welcomes older recruits looking for stability 06/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 7:01pm]

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