Nation & World

Older soldiers find a niche in new Army

As the South Florida real estate market disintegrated and the number of jobless rose, 40-year-old Jorge Gil Muela made a young man's decision.

The five-foot-seven, 235-pound property appraiser walked into a recruiting center in a Kendall strip mall in December to join the Army. He was told to shed 50 pounds. It's a small price, he said, for the job security and pay, family health insurance and new career as a cargo handler.

A 185-pound Muela will report for duty at Fort Sill, Okla., next month, leaving his wife, children and grandchildren behind in Miami.

''It's the only answer for me to secure our way of life right now,'' he said soberly, noting that the 21st century GI bill means that he can pass college benefits along to his 18-year-old son.

Muela's tale shows how the financial crisis may be subtly aiding the Army, which struggled to meet its recruitment goals in 2004 and 2005.

Muela was able to become ''GI Jorge'' because Congress in 2006 raised the Army's age cap from 35 to 42.

RECRUITMENT AID

Analysts anticipate that these hard times may help build a more mature, discerning Army less reliant on bonuses and waivers for would-be soldiers with health issues or criminal records.

''Since the economy has gone into the tanks, the recruiting environment has gotten a lot better,'' says Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy research group.

President Barack Obama even made a pitch of sorts for military service in his speech to Congress last Tuesday. He pledged pay raises and better veterans benefits and announced plans to grow the Army and Marines, which together make up about half of the 1.4-million-member active U.S. military.

Military life is not a viable midlife career change for everybody. But Staff Sgt. Javier Rabell, who recruited Muela, says he has handled three 40-something Army enlistments in recent months. The two other men were moving from the Navy Reserve to the Army for the possibility of promotions that came with raises, healthcare and a GI bill that lets them pass college tuition along to their children.

Last year, according to the Army, 393 men and women 40 or older enlisted -- 22 from South Florida.

Muela is a case in point.

In the real-estate boom, he said, property appraisers like him on contract to Wells Fargo could earn $80,000 a year.

''This year, I'm lucky if I make $20,000,'' he said.

January was so bad that he made $1,213. The $13 was a commission.

By April, his first full month as Pfc. Muela, he'll make $3,900, including cost of living, housing and food allowances because he leaves his family behind.

Rabell, 41, began to recruit in South Florida nearly four years ago, after a yearlong stint as a prison-camp guard at Guantánamo Bay.

Anecdotally, from his experience, the recruiting climate is ''getting a lot easier; people are coming in.'' When they do, they see photos of his 20-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter, both soldiers, too, the young face of an Army enlistment force whose average age is 27.

Moreover, ''we're getting more strict'' on whom to let in -- which means less of a maze of bureaucracy to check a would-be recruit's criminal record to see if he or she may qualify.

''We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society,'' David Chu, the former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said last October.

ARMY OPENS DOOR

Enter the Brooklyn-born Muela, who did a 1987-91 stint in the Marine Corps and later worked in South Florida in juvenile justice and then as a property appraiser.

The Marines turned him down as too old. The Navy offered him a lower rank, even with credit for time served to bridge his age.

The Army took him, provided he keeps weight off.

''I feel this is a solid place for me to be,'' he explained at the recruiting battalion at the Town and Country mall in Kendall. ``It's not like I'm going to be laid off.''

It begins with a month at Fort Sill in a course for returning recruits.

He starts as a private first class -- E-3 -- but hopes to fast-track to specialist, or E-4, which means a raise, another $350 or so a month, and no seamstress costs this time. His digital Army Combat Uniform uses Velcro.

A month at Sill will remind him to walk and talk like a soldier, tweak his Marine skill set, and prepare him for training at Fort Eustis, Va.

NEW SPECIALTY

The last time he served in the military, his specialty was radio operator, meaning that he would have called in gunfire on enemy targets had his unit been deployed from the USS Okinawa in the 1991 Gulf War. It wasn't.

This time, with a career in mind, he chose cargo specialist, considered a critical need in the military -- and a skill set he could use at, say, the seaport on his return to Miami.

Thus will begin years of separation for the family, which is staying put in their home near the Redland, where his eldest stepson's children, 1 and 2 years old, call him lelo, baby talk for abuelo, or grandfather.

Stepson Matthew is finishing high school and hopes to study at Miami Dade College. His wife, Susan, has a new payroll job she wouldn't consider leaving.

Besides, ''in this market, there's no way we can sell our home right now,'' Muela said.

`A CONSENSUS'

''At first, I was kind of apprehensive,'' said Matthew, 18, who has high school classmates joining the Marines. ``I still am, just a bit. But we came to a consensus, and we're pretty much agreed.''

Because Muela served previously, he didn't get the new enlistee's bonus of up to $20,000. Moreover, he gets to skip basic training, which means that he could be ready to join a unit by his 41st birthday in August -- about the time the Obama administration starts to draw down forces in Iraq and beef them up in Afghanistan.

''Will I be deployed? It's like doing the market -- you don't know where it's going,'' he said. ``If I have to go to Iraq, the job's about done, so I'd help bring out the supplies.''

What about an Afghanistan surge?

``I'm ready for that, too.''

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