45-year-old U.S. infantryman does heavy lifting in Afghanistan

ASHEQEH, Afghanistan — Jeffery Williamson was so angered by the 9/11 attacks that he decided to join the military, only to be told that at 36, he was a year too old to enlist. Five years later, on the day the Army raised the age limit to 42, he joined at 41. He's served in Iraq, and now he's back on the front lines, this time in Afghanistan.

Not only is Williamson, who's now 45, a soldier, he's an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell. Ky. Here's how the Army describes the requirements:

"Infantryman must perform strenuous physical activities, such as marching while carrying equipment, digging foxholes and climbing over obstacles. Being in top physical condition is a plus. Infantrymen need good hearing and vision."

Even that wasn't enough for Williamson, though. He pushed to join a scout platoon where everyone else in his unit is younger than his oldest child.

"I feel like they're my kids," Williamson said. "I feel responsible for them because they are so young. I wouldn't be able to go home and tell their mom and dad, 'Your son died because of something I did.' "

"I had a successful career, but I took 9/11 pretty personal when it happened," said Williamson, who's stationed at Combat Outpost Asheqeh in Zhari district, one of the most dangerous areas of the violence-plagued Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. "It was an attack on Americans on our soil, killing innocents."

He got a sympathetic hearing when he lobbied congressmen and senators to raise the enlistment age, but with no immediate effect. Unable to enlist, he threw in his 18-year career as a military aircraft components inspector and went for what he saw as "the next best thing," becoming a police officer in his hometown of Covington, Ohio, near Dayton.

Then, one day in September 2006, he heard on the news that the age limit had been raised. He rushed to the recruiters' office that day and signed up. He turned 42 while he was in basic training, surrounded by 18-year-olds. Williamson's the grandfather of a 1-year-old. His daughters, Stephanie and Mariah, are 29 and 19.

Williamson had to sell his house, his car — everything he owned — to afford to live on less money in the Army. He had to pay off debt and make child support payments.

"What I made in 2008 (in the military), I made in 1988," said Williamson, a muscular 6-foot divorcee with a shaved head and a soft-spoken manner. "It's what they call serving your country, because you're not making any money. . . . My family all thought I was crazy."

He served out his initial three-year contract, deployed from 2007 to 2009 on the north edge of Baghdad, and then he signed up for another five years.

On Sunday, Williamson was promoted to sergeant at a small ceremony at Combat Outpost Asheqeh amid expectations of a major operation involving his company, part of the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne's 502nd Infantry Regiment.

Infantry soldiers are typically 18 to 23 years old because of the job's grueling physical requirements, said Joshua Milan, the company first sergeant, who joined at 18 and became a sergeant in 1998. Williamson has had to do everything the "kids" do, Milan said.

"You're seeing older guys coming in more and more, from people on Wall Street to construction workers," said Milan, 35, who's from Charleston, Tenn. "People want to try something different and feel a part of something, especially with the war going on. That's drawn people who want to be a part of history. Maybe it's because of what they see in the movies."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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