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    The price of rushing into a war of aggression in the interests of big oil.

    By the thousands, soldiers 50 and older are being deployed
    Sunday, October 17, 2004
    Star-Ledger Staff
    Charles Thomas tended to wounded soldiers on the sweltering killing fields of Vietnam, helped hurricane victims in Honduras and oversaw finances for soldiers in Bosnia.

    Sometime in the next few weeks, the 58-year-old Army National Guard command sergeant major will leave his wife, Jeanette, their 11-year-old Maltese, Pebbles, walk through the door of his Old Bridge home one final time and head to Iraq.

    "I don't want to leave my wife, but I have to go," Thomas said during an interview last week at his house, which the couple is selling. "I made her a deal. I promised her this is my last tour of duty, and she gets a new house."

    Thomas is among a group of soldiers age 50 and over being called to active duty . Like many, he is a "citizen soldier," a member of the National Guard or Reserves, where soldiers serve part-time. They tend to be older than their active-duty counterparts and are increasingly being deployed overseas to augment active-duty troops.

    Of the 160,000 men and women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 4,119 are 50 or older. At a time in life when most people are looking forward to retirement or eyeing Florida real estate, these soldiers are leaving behind corporate jobs and grandkids. Some even voluntarily postpone military retirement to go to war.

    "The hardest part about going," Thomas said, "is when my granddaughter asks me why I'm not going to be home for Christmas."

    A stout man with chiseled Irish facial features and a crewcut, Thomas has 28 years in the military, six in the Navy. He has four children and four granddaughters, the youngest 6 months old. He works as an NJ Transit police officer and is a former state trooper.

    He thought of retiring from the National Guard after 21 years, shortly before November 2003, when it became clear the 50th Finance Battalion in Flemington, his unit at that time, was headed to Iraq.

    "I contacted a couple of people and said, 'No more, there's no way my wife is going to let me go,'" Thomas said while taking a break from packing last week.

    Instead of retiring, Thomas was offered and accepted a promotion as the command sergeant major of the 42nd Infantry Division Support Command, the highest rank for a noncommissioned officer. The part-time role allowed him to stay in the U.S. and use his experience to help prepare troops to go to Bosnia while holding his full-time civilian job. His military salary is $60,000.

    "My words to my wife were, 'Everyone will have to go to Iraq before I get called.'"

    But with military manpower stretched, the 42nd Infantry Division Support Command was called up in March. The tri-state unit, located in New Jersey, New York and Vermont, provides logistics and health service support to all units of the 42nd Infantry Division. They assist in weather disasters at home and typically prepare the equipment for troops heading overseas and are rarely deployed.

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