Home News Local news Older Part-time V.I. Soldiers Being Deployed to Combat Zones

Older Part-time V.I. Soldiers Being Deployed to Combat Zones


Dec. 19 -2004 – When the 652nd Engineering Division of the Virgin Islands National Guard left the territory last week headed – after some training stateside – for the Middle East they took a combat engineer, who up until a few days earlier, was a musician in a military band.
What was unusual about this particular soldier was, according to his former commander, he was more than 50 years old.
And the story of combat engineer Jeffrey Sewer is one that will likely be repeated among members of the V.I. National Guard and the Army Reserve.
Middle-aged guardsmen and women in their 40s and 50s, who have already logged up to 20 years in the service, are routinely being deployed to combat zones in Iran and Afghanistan.
A relative of Sewer's, who recently retired from the National Guard, said he has already heard from another middle-aged friend who is still on active duty and already has his marching orders.
"My understanding is if you've got your 20-year letter and it's really close to the time for retirement, they can work out something where you don't really have to be deployed," Larry Benjamin, the man who was
Jeffrey Sewer's commander when Sewer was a member of the now-defunct 666th V.I. Army Band, said this week. "But if you're 55 years old — that's still young, as far as I'm concerned — you can still get a call. You can still be deployed."
It is less likely they'll be called, Benjamin said, when reserve personnel are closer to 60 years old.
Jeffrey Sewer's cousin, retired Guardsman Larry Sewer, echoed Benjamin. "As long as they need a skill and you're in good health, if they need you, they're going to call."
According to a "New York Times" interview with Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas F. Hall, since the September 11 attacks, reservists, guardsmen and women and other part-time soldiers have been called to full-time service in numbers not seen since World War II.
Earlier this month CBS News Sixty Minutes ran a story, "Old Soldiers Back On Duty" that chronicles the fate of several middle-aged ready reservists who are being called back to active duty after thinking they had retired. One of them called the practice a "back-door draft."
According to Benjamin the reputation that has been built by the V.I. National Guard has put them among the part-timers most often sought for deployment.
However, "It depends on what their specialty is," Benjamin said.
Benjamin recalled, "When the National Guard here was tasked for water purification we had to go because there was a need. They had tasked other units from other places in the States but those units were not ready the way the Virgin Islands National Guard is always ready."
And, Benjamin said, "It has happened more than once."
Sewer also recalled, "Before I was retired prior to being 60 years old I was placed in the retired reserve. So at that point in time … I was subject to go because of my specialty. I could have gone in two areas, as a first sergeant or as a water treatment qualifier," he said. "In the military you have what is called a primary code or MOS {Military Occupational Specialty] and a secondary code. If they need you for your primary, regardless, you will go."
Many find themselves in this position, both Sewer and Benjamin said, after receiving the 20-year letter, which gives them the option of retiring but remaining on the reserve list or re-enlisting.
Those who re-enlist, according to Sewer, often do so because it lets them accrue extra service time before military annuity checks start showing up at age 60.
Benjamin said, "Even if there's a guy who's in the unit — people like my good buddy Jeffrey Sewer who was in my unit — for all those years he played in the 666th Army Band his specialty was combat engineering," Benjamin said. "He never had his MOS changed so when the call came for that kind of specialty well, there he goes,"
The former Army band commander said he believed Jeffrey Sewer, the musician turned combat engineer was around 54 years old.
And because of the type of war that's being seen these days, those middle aged weekend warriors may have to dodge bombs and bullets with the same vigor that soldiers half their age are now doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They might not end up in a situation where they're firing weapons … but it could be close. It's a different type of war now," Benjamin said. "The enemy is all over the place so that's why there isn't really a front line and a rear echelon."
Jeffrey Sewer shipped out with another 50 guardsmen and women from the V.I. The are expected to be gone for 18 months. (See "More Than 50 V.I. National Guard Members to Leave for Middle East")

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