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Senior strong: 55-year-old SFC graduates basic training

Jun. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. 1st Class John Taffe, 55, just graduated basic training.
Sgt. 1st Class John Taffe, 55, just graduated basic training. (Army)
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When John Taffe left the Navy in 1991, today’s basic-training attendees weren’t even gleams in their recruiters’ eyes.

But when the gray-haired former chief petty officer (E-7) decided to return to uniform as his 55th birthday approached, he found himself at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, alongside those very teenagers, trying to keep pace and provide advice without overstepping the authority of drill sergeants — including the sergeant first class who offered two simple words to Taffe at the start of training: “You’re mine.”

Taffe survived, graduating late last month with his group’s second-best fitness-test score. He’s now a sergeant first class with a Reserve unit in San Pablo, California, close to his regular logistics job with the Coast Guard in Alameda.

Why return to service at an age when many have long since left? The chance at retirement benefits and extra cash to help put his own two teenagers through college didn’t hurt, but Taffe said his motivation really came from his memories.

“Being in the military is something you can’t get anyplace else,” he said. “I cursed the day I had to let it go. I’m trying to regain that.”

He left what he called “the best job in the Navy” — a chief explosive ordnance disposal technician — for personal reasons. Or, as he put it, “to shake off an ex-wife.”

He knew almost immediately he wanted back in, but the service’s reserve EOD community wasn’t hiring.

Decades later, he ran into a different problem as he began knocking on doors to re-enter service.

“The Navy was the first door. They said, ‘No way, too old.’ ” he said.

Similar responses greeted him with the Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, but “I knocked on the Army door and they said, ‘Come in, my brother!’ ”

Taffe avoided age waivers by a matter of hours, in some cases. He had to retake his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery because the original version was on microfilm, buried in personnel archives.

But after a half-dozen trips to the military entrance processing station, Taffe was off to basic combat training. And while he’d prepared for the physical exertion, the combat part came as a surprise.

“Had I known that [basic rifle marksmanship] would’ve been a big part of basic training, I would’ve bought an M4 and a couple thousand rounds and done less CrossFit,” he said.

Another difference: “In the Navy, you’re part of a team. It’s ‘Keep the platform pointed in the right direction.’ In the Army, teamwork’s a big part of it, but a lot of the tasks are individual.”

And another new wrinkle, less about service branch and more about changing times: “They scared the living crap out of me with the sexual harassment training. One wrong comment, and pretty much you’re finished.”

He ate last every day — typical for a sergeant first class, but giving him less time to chow down and contributing to what he figures was a 20-plus-pound weight loss. He received the same screams from drill sergeants as his fellow new soldiers, but then faced “a million billion questions” from the recruits, who were afraid to ask their instructors.

Now a BCT graduate, Taffe might not be done with changes to his own career script. While he’s just starting his new Reserve gig, he did happen upon an open billet.

“Ranger school,” he said. “I definitely meet the minimum standards. If they send me, I’d be happy to go. I’d be honored to go.”

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