Patriotic Pang

At last, The Spike has finally found something to watch on TV besides Celebrity Fear Factor. This show, which airs on most channels and practically around the clock, is called The War in Iraq.

Yep, nothing better than coming home after a hard day at the office, plopping on the couch with a nice Pinot Noir and watching the destruction of the Cradle of Civilization (that would be the region around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a.k.a. Mesopotamia for those who don't remember their sixth-grade history pretty much where U.S. and British troops have been "throttling through," to quote TV talking heads over the past few days).

Actually, The Spike is happy to be watching this fascinating (both technologically and politically speaking) skirmish from the living room, and not "embedded" (that is, stuck, trapped for the duration, never to be free from dirt, bugs and MREs) like so many of The Spike's journalistic colleagues who are traveling with military units in the Middle East. Nic Robertson is lucky he and his CNN crew got booted from Baghdad, in The Spike's humble opinion.

Yet, while The Spike may be content to channel-surf through The War, Don Surovec is not.

Surovec is an experienced computer technician. He was recently laid off from a company that hasn't been doing so well because of the poor economy.

Surovec, who has been itching to do something to help his country ever since September 11, 2001, thought he'd found just the thing to solve both his patriotic pangs and his financial ones: He'd enlist in the service and offer his skills to help fight terrorism and keep vital military computer systems running.

But no one wants Don Surovec.

At age 46, he is deemed too old in fact, way too old for military duty, even if it's only sitting in front of some computer screen in, say, Biloxi, Mississippi, in order to free up some younger, more allegedly able-bodied body that could be shipped overseas for physical encounters with dirt, bugs and Iraqi soldiers.

"I have so much experience and background," Surovec tells The Spike. "I didn't want to just join the Red Cross. I wanted to do something more.

"At my age, I realize I wouldn't be on the front line but in a technical or support position."

So, a few weeks ago, Surovec got on the phone and started calling recruiters from the National Guard to all the regular services. Turns out the oldest you can be to join the Army or Navy is 34, and for the Air Force Surovec's first choice the cutoff is even younger at 27. The Marines won't take you after 28.

Staff Sergeant Gevem Custudio, a spokeswoman for Air Force recruiting, says if Surovec were a doctor or a nurse, they'd probably take him even if he is an old guy.

But short of that, the Air Force is pretty convinced that once you hit 27, your physical condition begins to deteriorate to a point that the service finds unacceptable.

Yow. The Spike knows many "older" people in fact, pretty much anybody other than The Spike, who is, happily, a slob who could run rings around these whippersnappers.

But Custudio is skeptical. "Once you hit 28 how do we say it? the legacy of youth is lost." (She's got to be kidding! From The Spike's, um, distinguished perspective, you're a kid at 28; you don't become a real man or woman until much later.)

"We don't want them to have a hardship because of their old age," she continues. "They can't run fast like a 27-year-old kid. It's nothing about the mental or emotional side; it's just physical."

Federal law actually sets the maximum age for enlistment for people with no prior service at 35. As near as The Spike can tell from the Air Force Web site (Sergeant Custudio had just gotten back from vacation and refused to ask anyone else this question or give The Spike another contact, although she did offer as an authority), this is so people can be assured of retiring at 55. That's the mandatory out-to-pasture age for many military folks, after 20 years on the job, which is the minimum required for retirement benefits.

Generally, if you have prior military service, they might take you back even if you are over the cutoff age but not much over it. Previous military service counts year-for-year to up the enlistment age slightly; for instance, someone with four years of service could still join the Air Force at age 31.

Surovec did serve in the military before, although not for long. It seems he enlisted in the Air Force when he was 18.

"I was very immature and really wasn't ready for it," he says. "I probably gave a 40 percent effort."

But Surovec thinks he's now just about the right age for military duty, able to appreciate what is expected of him.

After two months of basic training, Surovec was discharged, he says, honorably. Mainly, from what The Spike gathers, the Air Force wasn't ready for Surovec either.

"It was so regimented," Surovec recalls, surprisingly fondly. "You had to make your bed just so, everything in your locker had to be just so. You had to do everything they told you 24 hours a day. That was hard, as a young kid."

He says he can handle that now.

Besides, he says, it's only for basic training. Once you're out of the hellhole that is boot camp, you're in a technical school and then a regular duty assignment.

"They're not as much in your face," he says. "It's really more or less like a regular job."

Hmmm. The Spike is not convinced. If The Spike's boss ordered The Spike served up as scud missile fodder, The Spike could tell the boss no thank you. It might get fired, but probably not sent to Leavenworth for 20 years.

But what the heck. Even though The Spike may do an about-face when within sight of a recruiting station, it thinks our fearless leaders are wrong not to take advantage of Don Surovec and his ilk.

As Surovec points out, more capable people, even if they are over 40, might help fill the ranks enough that military personnel could be gone for shorter periods of time.

And older workers, especially those like Surovec who truly want to serve their country, couldn't help but bring a sense of maturity and stability and work ethic that would benefit the rank and file.

Also, who retires at 55 anymore? The Spike thinks it may be time for Congress to reconsider this particular military strategy, especially given the realities of a private-sector work force that is still going strong well into their 60s. As told to Patti Epler

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