Face of Defense: Soldier Returns to Service After Two-Decade Break
By Pfc. April Campbell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Feb. 7, 2008 In a room lit only by sunlight streaming in, a soldier bites through the plastic wrapper of a package of pencils. With children waiting excitedly in the adjoining rooms, there is not time to waste pulling out a knife.
Army Sgt. Jeff Wilkerson, an M1-A2 Abrams tank gunner with Multinational Division Baghdad, “high-fives” a child outside a school in Bayrk, Iraq, Feb. 2, 2008. Wilkerson and fellow soldiers delivered backpacks, pencils and stuffed animals to the school children. Photo by Pfc. April Campbell, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The morning’s mission, delivering presents to village school children in Bayrk, Iraq, was a far cry from Army Sgt. Jeff Wilkerson’s previous two jobs as a beverage distribution operations manager and a hotel valet supervisor.
Wilkerson, 43, who spent almost four years in the Army during the 1980s, said he was happy to return to being a soldier -- a job and life he loves.
After separating from the Army in 1986, Wilkerson, a Las Vegas native who serves as an M1-A2 Abrams tank gunner for Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Platoon, Company D, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said he missed being in the military, and that during his break in service he carried on the values of discipline and upholding standards that he had learned during his first enlistment.
“I regretted getting out every day,” he said. “When I was in the civilian world, people told me I acted like I was in the military.”
Wilkerson decided to re-enlist after the Army raised its maximum enlistment age to 42.
“I’ve got a 21-year-old son, and there are kids (serving) who are younger than him,” he said. “I’m still in shape and capable of doing a good job. Maybe my service will mean that another young guy his age will be able to return to his family.”
Before being transferred to his current platoon, Wilkerson was assigned to the company’s 3rd Platoon. Upon learning Wilkerson would be joining the unit in January 2007, 1st Lt. Matthew Vigeant, a Nashua, N.H., native who serves as 3rd Platoon leader, was a bit nervous about having an older soldier coming on board.
“I’m really big about doing (physical fitness training),” Vigeant said, “and I wasn’t sure a brand-new 43-year-old soldier would be able to keep up.”
It was not long, however, before Wilkerson, who can outrun many in his platoon, put Vigeant’s worries to rest.
When a soldier known as “Old Man” in the platoon puts a lot of effort into keeping fit, Wilkerson said, younger soldiers are encouraged to keep up and excel in their physical fitness. “I hope I’m giving the young kids motivation to better themselves,” he added.
The sergeant’s leaders recognize his work ethic and positive attitude.
“Wilkerson is the best soldier I’ve ever worked with,” Vigeant said. “His impact on the other guys has been huge, by both talking to them one on one and setting an example.”
Getting to know and become friends with fellow soldiers is a big part of Army life, Wilkerson said, adding that adjusting to more distant work relationships during his years in the civilian world was difficult at times. He said he was pleased to see that being in the military again has provided him with the camaraderie he missed after he left the service more than 20 years ago.
“The friendship of fellow soldiers did not change (while I was a civilian),” he added.
One soldier Wilkerson has befriended is Spc. Derek Massy, a Paso Robles, Calif., native, who serves as an M1-A2 Abrams tank leader with the company’s 2nd Platoon. The two met at the Warrior Transition Course in Santa Fe, N.M., which is set up for soldiers who are returning to the Army after having separated from the service.
While the two soldiers do not work in the same operational area here, they live in the same barracks warehouse and find time after daily missions to catch up. The two joke about the age difference between them and the other soldiers.
“We’ll tease each other about being older, saying things like ‘How’s your hip?’ or ‘Where’s the wheelchair you came here in?’” Massy said.
Wilkerson also enjoys the work he is doing in Fahama, a rural region in the Istaqlal district of Baghdad, during his deployment.
“My favorite part of the job is getting on the ground and interacting with the people, especially the kids,” he said. “I’m always handing out candy. I like to see the smiles on their faces.”
One child in the village of Jalatah, even recognizes Wilkerson and comes over to say hello to him when the unit stops there, he added.
In the long run, Wilkerson said, he plans to serve his country until retirement. He hopes to earn the rank of sergeant first class, if not higher, before that time comes.
“As long as the Army allows me to stay in,” he said, “I want to stay.”
Meanwhile, back in the Bayrk schoolhouse, smiling children swarm around Wilkerson and his fellow soldiers as they pass out school supplies and stuffed animals they brought with them. The “Old Man” returns the children’s smiles with one of his own.
(Army Pfc. April Campbell serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.)