Staff Photo by Shane McMillan Grandfather of four Sgt. First Class Richard Mullins may be mobilized for the third time in his 32-year career with the National Guard. The last time the 50-year-old military policeman was deployed was in 2004 and he stayed in Iraq for 18 months. He said the hardest part about being gone is missing important days like birthdays and holidays, especially Christmas.
When Sgt. 1st Class Rick Mullins was called to Iraq for the first time in 1991, he was a 33-year-old trying to usher a daughter and two sons into adolescence.
By the time his second Middle East deployment came around in 2004, his children were pretty much raised, and he had fulfilled his Tennessee National Guard contract several times over.
Now the Chattanooga resident is 50 and a grandfather of four. And he’s preparing to serve his country again, having been alerted that he should start training for a possible third deployment with the Cleveland, Tenn.-based 252nd Military Police Company.
And that’s OK, he said.
“You just deal with things when it happens,” Sgt. 1st Class Mullins said. “I think it’s fair. As long as anyone wears this uniform, they need to know they are subject to being mobilized.”
Besides, the sergeant knows his situation is far from unique.
With active-duty ranks stretched after more than five years in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is leaning on National Guard and reserve forces more than ever before — forces that tend to include older service members, said Commander Matt Heck of the Navy Operational Support Center in Chattanooga.
A UNIT WITH EXPERIENCE
When the Knoxville-based 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee National Guard deployed to Iraq in 2004, its highest-ranking noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. James Pippin, obtained a waiver in order to join in at the age of 60. When Times Free Press reporter Edward Lee Pitts embedded with the unit, he interviewed at least 16 other soldiers between the ages of 50 and 60, including:
* Sgt. Albert Howard, 60
* Command Sgt. Maj. James Kyle, 58
*. Lt. Col. Kim Dees, 56
* Sgt. Ricky Parker, 50
* Sgt. 1st Class Larry McCollum, 57
* 1st Sgt. John Cartwright, 54
* Sgt. 1st Class Bill King, 58
* Sgt. Mike Earles, 52
* Staff Sgt. Bill Walker, 50
* Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Landrum, 54
* Chief Warrant Officer Joyce Simpson, 50
* Maj. Sam Wood, 55
* Staff Sgt. Boyd Evans, 57
* 1st Sgt. Terry Melton, 54
* Sgt. Albert Howard, 59
* Spc. Michael Light, 50
Sources: Tennessee National Guard spokesman Randy Harris, newspaper archives
“We’re using reservists more often than in the past,” Commander Heck said. “We don’t have a draft, so during wartime that does tend to lead us to have older people.”
According to the U.S. Army’s Web site, the average modern soldier is 22 years old with four years of service under his or her belt. But since none of the military’s four major branches have an age limit for deployment — and the Army recently raised its ceiling for new recruits to 42 — older service members are being called upon regularly.
Even retirement age — which hovers around 60, depending on rank and waiver eligibility — won’t stop the most dedicated from deploying, according to Tennessee National Guard spokesman Randy Harris, who said he recalls a 60-year-old receiving a waiver to deploy with the Knoxville-based 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2004.
Almost 20 percent of the troops now deployed to the Middle East are Guard or reserve, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les’ Melnyk. It has remained close to that proportion since 2005, when it peaked at a high of 37 percent of all forces, he said.
Department of Defense officials announced in 2006 that they were reducing the percentage of deployed Guard and reserve troops in order to ensure they could perform their missions at home, which include responding to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
Lt. Col. Melnyk wasn’t immediately able to obtain data showing Guard and reserve percentages from previous conflicts. But he was quick to caution that even if they did show an increase over the years, that wouldn’t necessarily correlate with an overall increase in the age of the force over the same period.
Aggressive wartime recruiting within younger age groups has helped to sustain a youthful force and might even mitigate the reliance on groups that have traditionally included older service members, he said.
“The Guard and reserves have always been older,” the lieutenant colonel said. “But there is reason to believe the force overall has gotten younger, not older.”
Still, there’s no doubt that older service members are common within the ranks these days, said Commander Heck, who added that he thinks that’s a good thing. Older service members bring more experience and guidance to the field, he said, and their voluntary participation in the military means good spirit and a strong work ethic.
“I think we actually have a more capable force than we’ve ever had,” he said.
Air Force spokesman Capt. Mike Andrews agreed. He said extensive pre-deployment examinations should eliminate any worries that older service members aren’t fit for the jobs to which they are assigned.
“There’s an exhaustive medical checklist,” Capt. Andrews said. “If there’s any kind of a problem, they’ll move on and look at the next person.”
Sgt. 1st Class Mullins agreed that there’s nothing to worry about physically — at least where he’s concerned.
“I’m in good shape,” he boasted. “I can outrun some of the young guys, believe it or not.”
Older service members don’t necessarily need the physical fitness level of a new recruit as long as they know how to expend their energy intelligently and efficiently, said Sgt. 1st Class Blake Baxter of Ooltewah, a 53-year-old National Guardsman.
Sgt. 1st Class Baxter, who has been alerted for a possible second deployment with the Athens-based 117th Military Police Battalion, compared the dynamic to that on a tennis court.
“I can make a young guy run himself all over the court, but I have a tendency to know where to be,” said the grandfather of one.
Sgt. 1st Class Baxter hopes to get the chance to bring his experience back to Iraq because, he said, the current mission will benefit greatly from an influx of older personnel to guide the newer soldiers.
“It’s important to know how to fight,” he said. “But most of it is civil affairs. We’re in the stabilization phase. We’re supposed to be there to get the country working again.”