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WASHINGTON — The military’s newest recruits could be over the hill before they enlist.

Earlier this week, defense officials asked Congress to consider raising the maximum age for new enlisted recruits from 35 to 42. Department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said the change would bring the enlisted ranks in line with commissioned officers, whose age limit was raised to 42 in the 2005 defense authorization act.

Officials do not have any estimates on how many new recruits could be brought in by the change. However, Krenke said new Army enlistments this year among 29- to 35-year-olds are about 40 percent above fiscal 2001 levels.

“We do know that interest among older Americans in enlistment has increased since events of Sept. 11, [2001],” she said. “We are accommodating the wish of those Americans to serve their nation, but all must be fully qualified and none of the current medical or physical fitness standards would be waived.”

The change would apply to all four services and their reserves. Krenke said officials from the Air Force and Marines have already noted they do not plan on recruiting the older soldiers, even if the option is available.

Earlier this week defense officials announced that Navy, Marines and Air Force recruiters expect to reach their recruiting goals for fiscal 2005, but Army recruiters will likely miss their target for this year and could see ongoing problems in fiscal 2006.

The Army Reserve, Naval Reserve, Army National Guard and Air National Guard are also all behind pace to meet their recruiting goals.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the recruiting age change “desirable” because older civilians can bring important skills to the armed forces. He also noted that medical advances have extended the average lifespan in this country.

“I also think that we make a mistake in the military by having people automatically be forced out in the event that they may wish to stay in,” he said. “I frequently see people who are 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, who have served 20 years, and their circumstance is such that they’re out.

“And I think that we have a lot of wonderfully talented men and women in uniform, and we ought to adjust how we manage that force to fit the 21st century.”

Congress must approve raising the age limit before it could go into effect.

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