The Army told John Conroy on July 8 that it did not want him, despite his master’s degree in business and his marathon-proven fitness. Just shy of 41, he is too old.
But by next year, Mr. Conroy could be in a uniform.
With the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard all on pace to fall short of their recruitment goals for the year, the military is reconsidering its age limits for recruits.
Allowing older soldiers could be costly in terms of benefits, and there is the thorny issue of whether older men and women can keep up with the young. But many in the military argue that 40-somethings are in better physical shape today and point out that thousands of middle-age soldiers are already rotating through Iraq.
On Monday, the Pentagon filed documents asking Congress to increase the maximum age for military recruits to 42, in all branches of the service. Now, the limit is 39 for people without previous military service who want to enlist in the reserves and the National Guard, and 35 for those seeking active duty.
At a subcommittee hearing in the House on Tuesday, David S. C. Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said lifting the age limit was one of several tools needed to turn recruitment around.
“There is a segment of the population that is older, that would like to serve,” Mr. Chu said at the hearing, “and we’d like to open up that aperture for the military departments to use as they see fit.”
When asked how 42 was chosen, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Wednesday that it would bring the policy in line with a recent provision that allows the military to commission officers until that age. Even if the age limit is raised, she said, the Marines and Air Force planned to accept new enlistees only through age 35.
The proposal, intended for the 2006 defense budget now pending in Congress, could further ease the military’s historic reliance on young recruits. In March, the Pentagon rewrote its policy from the 1960’s that limited new recruits to people under 36, raising the age limit for Army Reserve and Guard recruits by five years, to anyone younger than 40.
Another step-up in age, like other ideas now being discussed – like the Guard’s request to expand the number of legal immigrants allowed to enlist – would add millions of people to the military’s pool of potential applicants. In a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the military was studying how many people 40 and over might enlist.
“It’s not the answer exclusively,” said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, the Army National Guard’s deputy division chief for recruiting and retention. “But we tend to miss our numbers on the margins, by 10 or 11 percent.” If people who are older filled half of that, he said, “maybe it’s good for America.”
Mr. Conroy, a married father of two young children, says he wants to tackle a new challenge, and to give back to the country that has helped him succeed. He says he earns a six-figure salary and owns his house and cars debt free, so it is the perfect time for him to start a new, meaningful adventure.
“I’m just interested in serving my country,” Mr. Conroy said in an interview from St. Louis, where he works in information technology. “I have no debt. I’ve done everything I want to do.”
At the very least, raising the age limit to 42 – a choice that some applicants consider as arbitrary as 39 – would open the doors to peers.
Pentagon figures from 2004 show that roughly 25 percent of the 343,000 people who serve in the Army National Guard are 40 or older. Among the 25,000 members of the Army National Guard now mobilized, mostly in Iraq, 3,952 are over 50.
Older soldiers have also been added to the ranks through stop-loss, a policy that extends the tours of soldiers beyond their enlistment contracts.
“People are living longer now, and things have changed since Vietnam,” said Brig. Gen. David Grange, former commander of the Army’s First Infantry Division, who retired in 2000. “Age should not be discriminate.”
The primary concern is fitness. A number of the eager applicants dismissed an age limit as unnecessary given the tests already administered to gauge performance.
Some commanders, though, question whether older soldiers will be able to perform on par with younger peers, particularly as they age or when they are deployed in Iraq’s desert heat or in the high altitudes of Afghanistan.
“It’s the endurance factor, your muscular energy,” said Lt. Col. Leah Sundquist, 42, the recruiting and retention commander for the Oregon National Guard, who worked as a mobilization readiness officer until December. “It is hard as you get older to maintain the stamina that a younger individual would do in terms of heat, rigorous movement and the gear you’re wearing.”
Potential costs might also crush the plan. Daniel Goure, a former Defense Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Virginia, said the military would save some money by not having to pay for college tuition for older recruits and spend some on increased doctors’ visits. “We don’t know quite yet what the overall impact would be,” he said.
Nonetheless, Army officials are keen on including people like Mr. Conroy. Members of the National Guard are part-time soldiers, they point out, already accustomed to having a business executive in his 50’s at the same rank as a 24-year-old just off active duty.
A Guard officer who has worked on recruiting issues in California, and who insisted on anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to reporters, said he was troubled about having to turn away a 41-year-old truck driver with a bachelor’s degree who wanted to apply his skills to the military, and a 42-year-old lawyer who wanted to be an infantry officer. Both applicants passed the physical fitness test.
Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett Jr., commander of the Tennessee National Guard, said he had received letters in the last year from at least two men who were about 45 and eager to enlist. “One of them ran marathons,” General Hargett said. “We ought to let a guy like that serve. I am not in favor of lowering the standards, but we should offer the opportunity of service to all Americans who are qualified.”
Older recruits, some suggest, might be well suited for policing places like Baghdad and Kabul. Sgt. Rowe Stayton, 54, a former F-15 fighter pilot, who re-enlisted in 2002 in the Army National Guard with credit from more than a decade of earlier service, said adding soldiers over 40 would “bring maturity and good judgment.”
One night in Baghdad during his yearlong tour in Iraq, he said, a young soldier shouted at a truck of Iraqis to halt and unlocked the safety on his weapon without knowing whether the vehicle posed a threat.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll stop when they see us,’ ” said Sergeant Stayton, who left the Air National Guard in 1987 at a rank of major. “Turns out, it was three Iraqis working for an American contractor who were going home after getting off work at 11.”
In addition to maturity, Sgt. Stayton said, age and education attracted respect from Iraqis. Now at home in Denver trying to restart his law practice, he said he looked forward to seeing more soldiers with graying hair among the ranks.
“I could see a battalion of older soldiers coming together in Iraq and functioning on the ground for a year,” he said. “I guarantee it would be the most effective combat unit there. They would win over more hearts and minds than any tour over there.”