The Taliban rocket slammed into Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan right at suppertime. It was a Friday evening in 2009. Soldiers at the base, also known as Rocket City, scrambled from the mess hall and ran for sandbagged bunkers.
Except for one man. Capt. Sam Carlson picked up his tray loaded with lobster and steak and sauntered to the bunker. He sat on an ammo box and started to eat. "Hell, I'm not gonna let those guys screw with surf-and-turf night," the then-62-year-old intelligence officer later recalled.
The ranks of troops in war are filled with youngsters — but there are exceptions. Each year since 9/11, several people over 50 have reenlisted or signed up for the first time in their lives. This past year, nine people over 50 enlisted, according to a Defense Department spokeswoman. For some, the terrorist attacks on America provided the motivation to enlist. For others, it was seeing the need to help as casualties mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part, they've been welcomed as experienced assets, not liabilities. It wasn't always easy to make the transition to the military. They needed age waivers, and the processing often took more than a year. The oldest active duty age limit for the Army is 35; for the Navy, 34; for the Marines, 29; for the Air Force, 39; and for the Coast Guard, 27.
Because of their experience and expertise, they may be commissioned as field grade officers — major, lieutenant colonel, colonel and their equivalent in Navy ranks. Even so, many of them took a substantial cut from their civilian incomes and often had to overcome resistance from friends and relatives.
Most older volunteers are doctors and dentists, whose skill sets the military greatly needs, but some bring other credentials to the table — like Carlson, who served in several roles, including in the military police and as an intelligence officer, from 1967 to 1987. Carlson's grandfather served in World War I, his father in World War II and Korea. His son served in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan; his grandson served in the second Gulf War.
Carlson enlisted in the Army at age 20 in 1967 and spent the next 20 years in uniform. In 2005, at age 58, he was recalled to active duty. He served two years at Fort Meade, Md., then volunteered for Afghanistan in 2007, serving with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. He retired again in 2008, only to be called up to serve as an intelligence officer with the 10th Mountain Division at Forward Operating Bases Shank and Airborne. At Shank he was known as OCITA — oldest captain in the Army.
But he was not alone. Here are the stories of some others who are serving, or have recently served, after turning 50.
Name: LAWRENCE BONE, 68
Rank: Lieutenant colonel, Army
Status: Retired, November 2015
It was a call no parent wants to get.
Lawrence Bone, then 58, was working as a successful orthopedic surgeon in Buffalo, N.Y., when he got the 21st-century equivalent of uniformed officers ringing his home's doorbell. In 2006, the Army caller told him that his son, Christian, had been wounded by a roadside bomb while serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. It had blown up his Humvee.
His son survived, was awarded a Purple Heart and went on to earn a nursing degree.
As a result of his son's injury, the father felt obligated. He left his practice, joined up and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve in 2011 at age 63. "I felt that because someone had taken care of my son, I should take care of them," he says. Since then, he served two tours in Afghanistan as a reserve medical officer, including a stint at Forward Operating Base Shank south of Kabul. It was, as the grunts say, "a bullet magnet."
Enlisting or re-upping at a nontraditional age takes time. For Bone, it took 21 months, lots of paperwork and background checks. Even so, an assistant secretary of the Army had to sign a waiver for him. Bone had to qualify with weapons and pass a fitness test, "which I did with a score of 300, the highest I could get."
Bone gave up his chairmanship of the orthopedic department at the University at SUNY Buffalo to deploy to Afghanistan for nine months.
Now 68, Bone faces a mandatory retirement date this month. Of his two tours in Afghanistan, he says, "My orthopedic specialty is trauma. War seemed to be a natural extension of my life." As for leaving the service, he says, "My only regret is that I didn't get in sooner so I could have done more."
(Video) AARP Salutes Col. Frederick Lough: Col. Frederick Lough joined the US Army Medical Corps Reserves at 58 and was deployed twice to Afghanistan where he performed hundreds of surgeries in tents. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service.
Name: DOUG TOMLINSON, 63
Rank: Lieutenant commander, Navy
Status: Reserve duty
Doug Tomlinson was a career civilian dentist before he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve at age 58 and served on ships in Southeast Asia and Italy. "My dad and brother saw combat duty [in World War II and Vietnam] and I felt it was my time," he says. "I wanted to do this."
Tomlinson says his age was never an issue. "I had the pleasure to mentor many young dentists eager to find out all they could about private practice outside the Navy."
Serving on the USNS Mercy as part of a team treating some 6,000 patients in Southeast Asia for 4 1/2 months, Tomlinson missed some family celebrations, such as his daughter's promotion to major in the U.S. Air Force and his grandson's first birthday. But Tomlinson's wife accompanied him on a month-long deployment to Naples, Italy, where he treated about a dozen patients a day.
Toward the end of his tour on the Mercy, Tomlinson remembers how the officers and crew manned the rails of the ship, wearing dress whites, standing at attention and saluting as they entered Pearl Harbor and passed the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona Memorial. "Tears were streaming down my cheeks," he recalls. "I was so proud to be an American. The ship came about and there was my wife, Bonnie, waiting for me after 4 1/2 months. What a day!"
Now 63, Tomlinson serves in the Reserve two weeks a year, although he says a rear admiral "has me on speed dial." The Navy has given him an age waiver to serve until he is 68.
Name: DAVID ALLEN, 60
Rank: Commander, Navy
Status: Active Duty
David Allen, a dentist, was 52 when he joined the Navy in 2007. His son, David J. Allen Jr., was already a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 2008. The older Allen sold his practice and served in the Navy Reserve with the Seabees in eight countries. Now 60, he's based in Huntsville, Ala., supporting the 4th Dental Battalion, and travels to several states. "Because of my country, I get to meet these young sailors," the dentist says. "It's an honor."
Allen was commissioned on board the USS Alabama. His son and his late father, Judd, who'd served in the Navy during World War II, were also on the battleship. Allen's father had never spoken of his wartime experiences — until that day. "When I was over there [in the Pacific]," he told his son, "we were getting shelled. I thought I was going to die. The Alabama came to our rescue." Allen chokes up as he relates this story. "Time is not on my side," he says. "I've got to do double-time." He has been told he can stay in the Navy until he's 68.
Name: HAROLD ZALD, 61
Rank: Commander, Navy
Status: Active Duty
Harold Zald, 61, another Navy dentist, now based in Japan, served on a submarine tender in Guam after he completed his 2 1/2-year journey from civvies to uniforms. "Everybody has shown me a lot of respect for doing my job well and for why I'm here," he says.
After being sworn in in 2007, Zald was sent to Newport, R.I., for officer training. "We did push-ups in frozen goose poop," he says, "but I felt like a kid at space camp."
Although there's a difference between civilian and military income for doctors and dentists, many say the job satisfaction and the chance to contribute to national security far outweigh any financial loss. "[Even though] I had a nice, predictable, comfortable life and was a successful professional … there has been no sacrifice."
Zald's 86-year-old mother had two brothers who fought in World War II. "Even a 53-year-old doesn't get excused from a 'maternal meltdown' by a worried mother when you make the announcement that you are joining up during a war," he recalls. "Now she understands, and [my] kids are actually proud of their old man."
The Zalds were scheduled to be transferred to Monterey, Calif., at the Naval War College after their time in Guam. But last year he and his wife, Dianne, got their wish to stay in Asia. "This is where we are going to spend the kids' inheritance," he jokes.
Capt. Nelson (Pete) Hildreth worked with Zald on the submarine tender USS Frank Cable in Guam for more than two years. Zald's "extensive experience was invaluable, and he brought new capabilities to the Frank Cable," Hildreth said in an email, noting that Zald spearheaded the use of computers to manufacture custom dental devices such as crowns on the ship.
Name: WILLIAM KRISSOFF, 69
Rank: Commander, Navy
William Krissoff says he "wanted to ... give back to my country" when he enlisted at age 61 in the Navy Medical Corps.
An orthopedic surgeon, his motivation came after his son Nate, a Marine officer, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.
Initially, Krissoff had difficulty enlisting, but he received an age waiver after he and other parents who'd lost sons and daughters to war met President George W. Bush. He asked to be sent where he could do the most good. After several training courses, he landed in Iraq in 2009. The war was winding down for American troops, so his seven-month deployment wasn't filled with helping those wounded in combat.
Back in Southern California, he worked at a Navy hospital — and then was asked to go to Afghanistan. The war there was heating up, especially in Helmand Province, where he was assigned to a hospital at Camp Bastion and to Forward Operating Base Delaram II. "It was a very intense, very dangerous time for Marines," he recalls. For him, the seven-month deployment "doing combat casualty care for Marines was the most rewarding time of my entire career."
Krissoff had another advantage when he got the age waiver.
"Physically, I was in great shape," he says, from swimming, gym sessions, backpacking and wilderness trekking. "I was willing and able to live in an austere environment. I didn't have to do anything new" when he went through a slightly modified version of boot camp.
Now retired in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., Krissoff reflects that he would have done one thing differently about volunteering. "I would have joined the Navy about five years earlier," he says. "I really wish I had. It was a really good fit for my skill set. I was honored and privileged to serve by taking care of Marines."
Mike Tharp is a veteran reporter who teaches journalism at Tarrant County College in Texas.