Sgt. Maj. Duwayne Larsen, 57, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, soldiers in U.S. Army Europe. Drafted and sent to Vietnam, then becoming a reservist years later, he's served for 34 years.

Sgt. Maj. Duwayne Larsen, 57, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, soldiers in U.S. Army Europe. Drafted and sent to Vietnam, then becoming a reservist years later, he's served for 34 years. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Some old soldiers don’t die or fade away.

Sgt. Major Duwayne Larsen is a case in point. In three months, he’ll be 58. And with 34 years in the Army Reserve, and a new assignment at U.S. Army Europe, he has no immediate plans to fade away.

By regulation, he should retire next year, after 35 years of military service. “Yes, but there are always exceptions and extensions,” Larsen said.

Larsen, who works in the G8 section (programming, analysis, and materiel integration), recently had the dubious honor of “representing” the oldest soldier in USAREUR at a ceremony marking the 232nd anniversary of the U.S. Army’s existence.

In Heidelberg for only two months, he got a phone call and before long he was standing in front of the camera with an 18-year-old representing the youngest soldier, helping USAREUR commander Gen. David McKiernan cut the Army birthday cake.

It’s interesting that Larsen has had such an enduring relationship with the Army, albeit one that’s been primarily part-time. His first experience with it — as a draftee sent to Vietnam — was not a happy one. “It was like oil and water,” Larsen said. “I couldn’t wait to get out.”

After his Vietnam experience, the former sergeant and medical lab technician wanted nothing to do with the military. He worked a variety of jobs, made good money and enjoyed his freedom. Then, eight years later, fate intervened.

“I got a call from a recruiter out of the blue,” Larsen said.

The recruiter asked if Larsen was interested in joining the Reserve. He said he would enlist for one year on two conditions: that he could return to the same medical field, and at the same E-5 rank.

And before long, he was part of the 452nd General Hospital in Milwaukee, Wis.

“I got that one-year enlistment, and I fell in love with it,” he said. “The greatest group of people I’ve ever worked with in my life. They had long hair and couldn’t get their boots bloused properly. But they could go in and save a soldier’s life.”

Among those people was the woman who now has been his wife for 24 years, a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve. She’s also on active duty in Heidelberg and works at the same place he does in Chicago — Abbot Laboratories — when they’re on reserve status.

“We don’t have any problems being around one another. If she tells me what to do and we’re in uniform, I do it. In 24 years, we haven’t raised our voices to one another. Not to get mystical or anything, but that recruiter called me up, and look where I am today. I’m married because of it.”

He figures he’s spent about two years on active duty, including a stint during the Persian Gulf War in which he helped set up one of two labs designed to detect biological agents. But the strangest thing that has happened to him in the military happened in Vietnam.

“One day a guy gave me a package all wrapped up in gauze,” he said. “I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s an arm.’ ”

“I didn’t know what to do with it so I put it in the fridge.”

Larsen said that the reserves have changed totally in the past 15 years. “The Gulf War started it and 9/11 finished it,” he said. “The Army is aware now they can’t do anything without the reserves. So there’s more respect there.”

Which isn’t to say some things don’t annoy him after all these years — including the uniform.

The U.S. flag sewn onto the uniform’s right arm, with the stars on the right side instead of the left?

“It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s completely wrong,” he said. “It’s a constant irritant.”

And the beret?

“It has no utility,” Larsen said. “It’s wool. We have a uniform that’s hot and there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re always professing to have the soldier’s good at heart but I don’t believe it.

“If you’re looking out for the welfare of your troops … how about a summer uniform?”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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