Old Soldiers Die, Too
Master Sgt. Thomas R. Thigpen was 52 when he fell dead of a heart attack during a touch-football game in Kuwait on March 16 Ã¢€” a casualty that does not quite fit the standard template of wartime tragedy: the fresh-faced 18-year-old cut down with the promise of a full life ahead. He was not the oldest to die since the invasion of Iraq. That would be Staff Sgt. William D. Chaney, 59, who operated the machine gun in the door of his unit’s Black Hawk helicopters Ã¢€” the same job he performed in Vietnam Ã¢€” and died after surgery for an intestinal problem. Sgt. Floyd G. Knighten Jr., 55, serving in Kuwait in the same unit as his 21-year-old son, died of heat stroke while driving a Humvee without air-conditioning across the scorching Iraqi desert. In all, 10 soldiers age 50 or older have died in the Iraq war, some of medical ailments that might have excluded them from earlier conflicts, others under fire in the heat of battle. That is a small percentage of the nearly 900 American service members who have died since the Iraq war began, but it is 10 times the percentage of men in that age group who died in Vietnam. It is nearly as many as those of that age who died in the entire Korean War.
The war deaths of middle-aged soldiers are a consequence of a specific moment in American history. With a shrinking roll of full-time soldiers and no draft to replenish it, the nation’s armed forces have had to reach deeper into the Reserves and the National Guard, where men in their 50’s typically train and serve alongside soldiers in their teens. About 5,570 of the 275,000 American troops in or about to leave for Iraq and Afghanistan are 50 and older, nearly all of them members of the Guard and Reserves.
The deaths raise questions about why older men, many of them veterans and some in obviously questionable health, are deployed to a war zone. Seven of the 10 died of heart attacks or other “nonhostile” causes, as the Pentagon classifies them, while three were killed in combat. Though the Army and other service branches have mandatory retirement regulations that can kick in anywhere from age 55 to 62, depending on a soldier’s length of service and other circumstances, there are no age limits on the battlefield. “If you’re a soldier, you’re expected to be able to do your job and to go where you’re needed,” said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman. “Where you’re needed is most likely to be in a combat zone.”
All members of the armed forces must pass periodic fitness tests – meeting standards in push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run – and military regulations require physical examinations on base at least once a year for members of the Reserves and the Guard. But medical assessments can be subjective: A condition like high blood pressure, which would bar a recruit from enlistment, is allowable in an experienced soldier if it can be controlled through medication.
This is a rather odd story. It’s a shame that men are dying but that’s a fact of life in a war zone. Soldiers, including those in the Guard and Reserve, exist primarily to fight our nation’s wars. So, if we’ve got men in the military in their 50’s, it stands to reason that they’ll go to war if our military does.
Most, if not all, of the 50-year-olds in the military are senior leaders–mainly colonels and generals, with a few senior NCOs. They’re usually not assigned as riflemen. Indeed, as the story notes, seven of the ten deaths from this cohort were from something other than combat.
The nature of warfare has changed radically since the 1940s. Most soldiers now perform combat support or service support tasks. And, of course, 50 isn’t nearly as old as it was then. There’s no reason that men in that age bracket can’t continue to serve.