55-year-old back in basic training after 37 years
March 27, 2014
Soldiers from Company D, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, look just like any other Soldiers from a Basic Combat Training company -- but one individual has people doing double takes.
That's because Sgt. 1st Class John Taffe is 55 years old.
"I don't think I have ever sent a Soldier to Basic Combat Training who could outrank his drill sergeants," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Karr, Recruiting Center Alameda, Calif., commander.
Taffe said even his new battle buddies were confused by his presence.
"They don't really know how to deal with me. They are asking me a lot of questions. At first, they thought I was like an ?'Undercover Boss,'" Taffe said, referring to the CBS show.
Taffe began his military career in 1977 with the U.S. Navy. Most of his time was spent as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician, diver, parachutist and instructor.
He served for almost 14 years before being released from active duty in 1991 with the rank of chief petty officer or E-7 equivalent.
Taffe now works as a logistics management specialist for the Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Coast Guard.
Taffe said recently he was exploring a job option with the State Department when he stumbled on the U.S. Army Reserve.
"I want to get back in the fight, honor those who couldn't come home and finish what I started in 1977," Taffe said.
Joining the U.S. Army Reserve was a Family decision; one Taffe said he made with his wife and two children.
"It was a decision that was fully supported," Taffe said. "They are proud. My daughter is concerned how she will handle my absence; I've never been away from them for 10 weeks. My son says he can't wait for (the Army) to break me."
Taffe was 54 when he started the uphill battle to enlist in the Army.
Taffe's recruiting center commander said getting the former Sailor to Fort Leonard Wood to start basic training at his age proved to be a challenge.
"On top of the peculiarity of John's story, we were also racing the clock with his age. Once he hit the age of 55, we could have potentially hit a wall in our processing. After about four consecutive days in the Military Entrance Processing Station in San Jose, Calif., Sgt. 1st Class John Taffe enlisted with roughly 36 hours remaining before his age would have become a show stopper," Karr said.
Taffe remembers those tense days well.
"Systems, software, doctrine and directives don't readily support a 54-year-old coming back to serve. I spent six days at a Military Entrance Processing Station working my way over the hurdles," Taffe said.
Making it even tougher, Taffe's Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery score was so old it was virtually unavailable -- filed away on microfiche film in the national archives.
"The counselor couldn't determine if I was qualified for my Military Occupational Specialty (88N Transportation Management Coordinator), even though I disarmed improvised nuclear weapons for the Navy. So, I ran across the hall to retake the ASVAB to get my contract to print out before I aged out, because 55 requires an age waiver," Taffe said.
Karr said the extra work was worth it.
"(Taffe) is an ideal recruit due to his motivation and drive to continue serving his country," Karr said. "Sgt. 1st Class Taffe has a strong sense of duty, which has not faltered since he first entered active service in 1977. He has since fulfilled many roles as a civilian contractor for the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. The desire to serve is something that never leaves a Soldier, and this is the case with Sgt. 1st Class Taffe. The experience and wisdom he brings to the Army, coupled with his humble demeanor will make him an invaluable leader and mentor in his unit."
Taffe had only been on post a few hours when he said he noticed times have changed since he first enlisted 37 years ago.
"In 1977, I don't remember the emphasis being on safety. After being in hearing-related programs for 15 years, some of the briefings I have been getting here about hearing protection are some of the best I have ever seen," Taffe said.
This isn't Taffe's first time on Fort Leonard Wood. He visited the post from 1997 to 1999 while working for a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency program involving landmines.
"I feel this is the place to transform from a Sailor to a Soldier, learning the Army way from the ground up," Taffe said.
To prepare for BCT he said he ran five miles at 4 a.m. and did CrossFit six days a week, as well as participated in outdoor activities like rock climbing, skiing, snow camping and climbing Mount Whitney in California.
"It's mind over matter. Failure is not an option. This is the EOD motto I used to remove thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines from 147 linear kilometers of the border between Kuwait and Iraq after the first Gulf War," Taffe said.
(Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series. Another story will follow half way through Taffe's BCT journey, then a final story near graduation.)