Elbert "Rusty" Coleman put in 23 years with the U.S. Army in various administrative positions, retired as a sergeant first class in 1989 and got on with his life, working and raising a family in West Melbourne, Fla.
Twenty-one years later, he has returned to active duty, answering a voluntary recall notice for retirees, in part to serve with his two sons — 1st Lt. Myles Coleman and Georgia National Guard Spc. Sean Coleman — and to finally get a taste of combat.
"I never before had the real opportunity to serve in a war zone during my previous years of service," Coleman, 61, wrote via e-mail from Victory Base Complex in Iraq, where he's currently stationed. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to 'redeem' myself by serving a tour or two in a battle zone."
Coleman is one of 974 current U.S. Army enlisted men and officers who volunteered to return to active duty after retirement, said Lt. Col. Maria Quon, public affairs officer for the Human Resources Command.
"It's awesome to see my dad back on active duty," said 1st Lt. Myles Coleman in an e-mail from Afghanistan where he's deployed. It's also inspiring to see the value of the experience that retiree recalls bring to young soldiers, he said.
Positions not permanent
Similar volunteer programs exist for the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
• The Air Force, which accepts only officers, had a voluntary recall program January through December 2009 and had 386 return, said Kenneth Pruitt, media relations chief for the Air Force.
• The Navy had 378 retired enlisted personnel and officers return to duty last year, Lt. Laura Stegherr said. Most are very specialized, such as chaplains and doctors, she said.
• The Marines had a limited voluntary recall program from February 2008 to February 2009, Maj. Shawn Haney said. It filled all 300 available senior non-commissioned officer positions, she said.
The Army started accepting small numbers of retirees in 2002, after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October 2001, Quon said. It opened the door to even more retirees in 2004 when then-secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the mobilization of up to 6,500 Individual Ready Reserve soldiers to fill vacancies in units mostly bound for Iraq and Afghanistan, Quon said.
Last summer, the Army opened the voluntary recall to retirees over 60 who hadn't begun receiving a pension after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to increase the Army's active duty strength by about 22,000, she said.
"At this time we are advertising about 100 tours for officers and about 100 tours for enlisted," Quon said. "A tour is not a permanent position, but a temporary position that usually lasts 180 days to one year."
For Sgt. Maj. Daniel Emmons, the return to service was deeply emotional. He was drafted the first time around in 1969 and shipped to Vietnam where he served as a military policeman. He stayed on active duty until 1994, followed by six years in the Reserve.
Almost 40 years after he was drafted, the St. Louis native volunteered to come back more than a decade after retiring from active duty. Emmons has done classified work related to troop mobilization for nearly three years since.
"I had a feeling the kids in right now were beat up too much with mobilizations and redeployments," Emmons said. "I care a lot about what it is to be a soldier, what they go through, what younger soldiers face with their families and their deployments."
Small part of forces
Since the 9/11 attacks, 3,077 U.S. Army retirees have returned for periods of active duty, Quon said. Two returned retirees have been killed in action: Maj. Steven Hutchison, 60, of Scottsdale, Ariz, was killed in Iraq on May 13, 2009; and 1st Sgt. Jose Crisostomo, 59, of Inarajan, Guam, was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2009. Both were killed by improvised explosive devices, according to the Defense Department.
Voluntary retiree recalls make up a small fraction of today's 539,675-member Army, but are essential because of their skills and experience, Quon said.
Anyone discharged after 20 years or more of military service, up to age 70, can apply for recall at the Army Human Resources Command website (www.hrc.army.mil), she said.
Retirees face a rigorous screening process, Quon said. "Applicants must meet our health and fitness criteria, qualify for a security clearance if need be, and we must be able to match them to a valid opening for their rank, experience and skill set," she said.
Master Sgt. Austin Asher, 62, who had spent 31 years in the Army, faced the challenge of finding an opening that fit his experience when he tried to go back in 2007. A mess sergeant, Asher's job was not a high-demand position, he said. But after two years of letter writing, the Berea, Ohio, resident got his wish.
"I'm the old man that can," Asher said this month by phone from an Army post in Washington a day after returning from Iraq, where he again worked in food services. "Would I do this again? Yes, I would."