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Newest Army recruits: the over-35 crowd

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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.

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