Retirees returning to military add old-school savvy to the ranks
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Lt. Col. Lou Nelson retired before PowerPoint presentations dominated military briefings, when service records were kept on paper and reading a map didn’t involve a hand-held computer.
Needless to say, Nelson and others who have returned to active duty in recent years do not rely on smart phones or Blackberries to the extent their counterparts do today.
“We were soldiers — batteries not included,” said Nelson, a communications officer with U.S. Forces Japan, whose initial career spanned from 1969 to 1995. “We went from a paper trail to e-mail.”
At 59, the Vietnam veteran came back to the Army in 2009 through the voluntary retiree recall program.
“We didn’t come back for sweet jobs,” Nelson said. “We came back to serve.”
In fact, according to the Army, most of the once-retired soldiers have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. What they may lack in techno-savvy, they make up for in experience.
“They are not the Facebook generation,” Brig. Gen. William D. “Razz” Waff, deputy commander of U.S. Army Human Resource Command, said Friday. “Instead, they bring a seasoned wisdom that comes with having been there and done that.”
The Army’s retiree recall program has put nearly 3,000 soldiers back in boots since 9/11, Army figures show. Two of them, 1st Sgt. Jose Crisostomo and Maj. Steven Hutchinson, were killed in combat in 2009. And a combined 1,000 Marines, sailors and airmen have left retirement to serve again, USA Today reported in February.
From the cleanup effort in the Gulf of Mexico to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, retirees have helped fill critical positions — aviators, doctors, infantry commanders — in a military stretched thin by combat operations.
Even as overall recruitment and retention rebound amid a sluggish economy and the services prune their ranks of underperforming personnel, Waff said retirees will likely remain valuable to the Army mission.
Reservists, along with those called back to active-duty involuntarily through the Individual Ready Reserve and troops the Army “borrows” from other services, are not always enough to meet the need for experienced field-grade officers and senior enlisted soldiers, he said.
“It’s a requirement-driven system,” Waff said.
For example, he said, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, 61, was recently called back to active duty to lead the oil-spill recovery effort.
Retirees who re-enter the Army are not required to pass physical training tests but must meet certain height and weight standards and undergo a health screening. They are not evaluated and cannot be promoted, which gives them the freedom to “tell it like it is,” Waff said. It’s a luxury not all soldiers have during their traditional military careers.
Nelson, for example, recommended “turning off the technology” during a recent command exercise.
“There was some confusion and chaos and consternation,” he said. “But it helped us learn something.”
Even simple tasks such as face-to-face conversations instead of e-mail can be overlooked in today’s Army, said Nelson.
And although the digital age has expanded communication and can shorten the decision cycle, he added, “Sometimes you have senior officers who are provided too much information and not enough time to digest it.”
Nelson and his colleagues at USFJ, Maj. Michael McGurl, 61, and Maj. James Hewitt, 53, also serving under the retiree recall program, said they endure good-natured teasing for their age.
“But a lot of times we’re the go-to guys,” said McGurl, a Gulf War vet who joined in 1969, retired in 1996 and returned to active duty in 2009. “It’s amazing the number of questions you get about all kinds of things. I think it’s just the perspective we have.”
The men agreed that the military’s reliance on technology is the biggest change they have noticed since returning to the Army.
The camaraderie, they say, is unwavering.