After 33 years in a U.S. Army uniform, Col. D. Ladd Pattillo of Austin, Texas, retired from the reserves. It was August 2000, and he was 53 years old.
Four years later, around Christmas, he answered a life-altering phone call. His country needed him again, this time in Iraq. With the help of a personal trainer, he spent seven months toughening up before deployment. Wearing 50 pounds of body armor isn't easy on anyone, let alone someone his age.
Pattillo, now 63, views war as "a young man's game." The last thing he wanted was to put "a drag on anybody by being the old guy," he says. In August 2005, he landed in Baghdad, beginning a six-month tour of duty as deputy commander of a combat support brigade.
Pattillo is one of 1,606 retirees who have served on active duty in the Army since the 9/11 attacks. Currently, 921 Army retirees are active, compared with the 711,856 active members of all ages in that branch of military.
Voluntary recall programs have made it possible for retirees from the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy to return to active duty, serving the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their skills and experience on and off the battlefield are priceless in leading today's young troops.
"Retirees have volunteered hundreds of thousands of hours serving communities and bases worldwide, saving millions of dollars to be sure," says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
While retirees make up just a sliver of the estimated 1.4 million active-duty service members, they undergo an intense screening process. They must meet health and fitness requirements and, if necessary, qualify for a security clearance. There also needs to be a suitable position for their rank and abilities.
Taking on supervisory roles
Veterans Day has special significance for retirees who answered the call back to duty. Col. Kevin Voigts, 55, of Fairfax, Va., usually attends a parade to mark the holiday. Twice since his 2007 retirement from the Army, he has been deployed to Iraq.
From May 2008 until January 2009, as chief of the Defense Intelligence Support office in Iraq, Voigts oversaw the logistics, personnel, money, supplies, equipment and life support for the U.S. military serving there.
Most recently, from July 2009 until May this year, Voigts served as a team leader in a new counter-insurgency program. He led a group of Middle East anthropologists, sociologists and Iraqi expatriates on a mission to assess the locals' views of U.S. operations and to gain insight into their needs.
"I was anxious to contribute again," says Voigts, an active-duty soldier from 1977 to 1987 and then a reserve officer for the next 20 years. "Every day you could do something that made a difference."
In those supervisory roles, Voigts wasn't in as much danger as troops on combat patrol. Still, in a war zone, no one is ever safe. Mortar rounds strike at random, and machine gun fire can erupt anytime.
"There were some scary times when I crawled under my bunk with my body armor on, when there was a firefight outside the wall," recalls Voigts, who manages 42 insurance agents in Northern Virginia.
Families left behind
Aside from their own anxiety, retirees recalled to active duty worry about the strain on loved ones. "The impact on the spouse who remains behind is very, very difficult," says retired Col. Frank Ryan, 59, of Lebanon, Pa. "We know when we're deployed whether we're safe or not, whereas our family member is always wondering."
Ryan retired from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve in 2002, after a one-month stint in Afghanistan as the central command special operations officer. Later, "I still remember the phone call I got in November 2004," Ryan says.
"They asked me if I was physically able to go on active duty. I said 'absolutely.' Two weeks later, I received orders to go to Iraq." He was deployed from December 2004 until June 2005.
Ryan worked with an Iraqi committee on national security to ensure that the country's elections would proceed freely and without incident. This required someone with expertise in rebuilding governments or corporations in addition to a military background.
As a certified public accountant, Ryan specializes in helping companies avoid bankruptcy. He became self-employed in 1991, after realizing that it would be easier to resume active duty if he was his own boss.
Pattillo, immediate past president of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, is also an independent consultant. He advises municipal governments on selling bonds to build and repair roads, bridges, schools, jails and other projects. "I put that on hold," he says, "to proudly return to active duty."
His experience in finance and four years as former assistant attorney general of Texas qualified him to interact on the Army's behalf with U.S. contractors in Iraq. The contractors kept water systems, cafeterias and other entities running smoothly on the military base during his tour, which ended in January 2006.
"My civilian skills did come in handy," Pattillo says, "and they were happy to have me there."
Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.