December 27, 2013

Even in their 40s, some Mainers answer an inner call to duty

They put careers on hold to head to the war zone, mentor young troops and fulfill personal goals. Part three of our series from Afghanistan.

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Call it a sign of the times: A decade ago, when the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion first went off to war in Iraq, the average age of its soldiers was 36.

click image to enlarge

Sgt. Todd Mills of Gorham, who traded his portfolio manager suit and tie for fatigues and body armor, prepares Thursday for battle drills with the 133rd Engineer Battalion in Afghanistan.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Spc. Holly Parker and her son, Spc. Andrew Parker, both members of the Maine 133rd Engineer Battalion, pose for a portrait together at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Friday.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“Now it’s 26,” said Lt. Col. Dean Preston, the battalion’s commander and a 24-year veteran of the Maine Guard.

Yet with all the 20-somethings who now bear Maine’s pine-tree patch on the left shoulder of their desert camouflage uniforms, averages can be deceptive.

Sprinkled here and there in this battalion of almost 200 “citizen soldiers” are those who gave up more than their share as citizens to take on the difficult and sometimes dangerous duties of a soldier.

They’re either past 40 or fast approaching it. Their job titles at home have achievement written all over them, while their military ranks here put them among comrades young enough to be their children.

Just ask Spc. Holly Parker, 41, of Brooks, a senior credit analyst with Bank of America in Belfast whose current day job is human resources specialist in the 133rd’s personnel section. Toiling two tents down from her in the supply section is her 24-year-old son, Spc. Andrew Parker of Belfast.

“I’m glad I could come with him,” said Parker, who was 39 when she enlisted in 2011. “I’d just rather he didn’t have to come with me.”

Parker always wanted to be a soldier. Her father, Robert Hamilton of Brooks, was a Vietnam veteran and an Army recruiter. Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Randal Parker, served with the 133rd in Iraq and still works full time for the Maine Guard.

“I grew up saluting, and when my husband and I were dating in high school, he used to say that my dad had taken my brain out and washed it in a bucket of Army,” Parker recalled with a laugh. “But if you do the math, you’ll see that I had Andrew a little young. So I was kind of busy raising him.”

DETERMINED TO MAKE THE GRADE

Parker went to work for MBNA in 2001 and, when that credit card giant was bought out by Bank of America in 2006, kept working her way up the ladder to her current job, analyzing credit-card applications at the company’s office in Belfast. But as her 40th birthday loomed, Parker felt something was missing.

“I was 39 and I’m sitting in my cubicle at work and I’m thinking, ‘You know, I could probably do even more than this,’ ” she said.

So in March of 2011, just six weeks before the National Guard dropped its maximum enlistment age from 42 to 35, Parker took the plunge.

 

Before she could get to basic training, she had to sweat her way through the Guard’s “Recruitment Sustainment Program.” Her first assignment: lose 60 pounds.

She did it, at a steady rate of five pounds per month, by running up and down the hilly roads of Waldo County, working out to an array of exercise videos at home and “eating the same thing (Shakeology meal replacement shakes) every day for a year.”

One drill weekend, while running relay sprints against 18-year-olds, Parker partially tore a calf muscle.

It healed.

Then, while doing repetitive push-ups, she tore a rotator cuff in her shoulder. It took surgery to fix that.

Finally, one day, her first sergeant called Parker into his office and tactfully asked, “Private Parker, you’re still set on doing this, right?”

(Continued on page 2)

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