A lucrative career, a beautiful home, a loving fiancée and a close relationship with a son who is more like best friend would be enough to convince most men that they are living a full life.
Donald Wilson of East Quogue, who is also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, has all of those things and yet he felt that there was still something missing.
“Short of paying my taxes, I have never given anything back to my country,” he said.
So, in July, Mr. Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army National Guard—an unusual feat for someone his age. He was 41 when he enlisted, one year younger that the official cut-off age to join the military outfit.
According to Julia Bobick, a public information specialist with the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, of the 90,000 recruits who enlisted in the Army and the Army Reserve last year, only 393 were over the age of 40. She added that only 825 men and women over the age of 40 have enlisted in the Army since it increased its cutoff age for new recruits from 40 to 42 in 2006. Specific numbers regarding the Army National Guard were not immediately available.
Mr. Wilson had just finished managing a large project for John Hummel Custom Builders of East Hampton—“I built big expensive houses for the ridiculously wealthy,” he said of his role at the company—when he decided that the time was right to enlist. He had been considering joining the military for three years, but held off because the timing wasn’t right. His first choice was to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard, he said, but he missed the age cutoff by several years.
“They don’t take old guys like me,” he said.
The cutoff for the U.S. Army National Guard is 42. Mr. Wilson celebrated his 42nd birthday on October 7, 2008, while attending basic training.
Maura Sullivan, Mr. Wilson’s fiancée, said that while she initially was shocked by her future husband’s decision to join the National Guard, she understands and supports him.
“He makes a decision and he goes with it,” she said.
Mr. Wilson left for Fort Benning, Georgia, to attend basic training on August 26. While there, he had no access to telephones, television or the internet. “Just snail mail,” he said. Upon his arrival, the middle-aged dad said he took a look around and quickly realized that he was lost in a sea of 18- and 19-year-olds.
“He could have been everyone’s father,” Ms. Sullivan said.
Even so, since he normally gets up at 5 a.m., Mr. Wilson said basic training was actually easier for him to adjust to than many of the younger privates.
“I had fun with the training,” he said. “They didn’t offer me much in discipline.”
Mr. Wilson said the hardest part of enlisting in the National Guard was leaving his 16-year-old son, Ryan, who lives with him Monday through Friday in their Southold home and spends weekends with his dad in East Quogue.
“He’s like my best friend,” Mr. Wilson. “We thought it would be easier than it was.”
Unlike his father, Ryan said he had some concerns about his father’s decision to enlist in the Army National Guard.
“I wasn’t happy about it,” Ryan said. “I was concerned that he’d be sent to Iraq.”
Though he misses him at times, Ryan said he is now extremely proud of his father’s decision to serve his country.
“It was a hectic time, not having him here,” he said. “But I encouraged him and I understood.”
Ms. Sullivan said that her fiancé did exceptionally well during basic training, frequently beating privates half his age in physical fitness competitions. Mr. Wilson said he enjoyed the competitive aspect of basic training, something he said he has not experienced since his high school days.
He also enjoyed tapping some of his more primal urges.
“They let me blow s— up,” Mr. Wilson said.
After completing basic training, Mr. Wilson received additional training to become a human resources specialist in charge of payroll. Describing himself as a “chairborne ranger,” Mr. Wilson said he accepted the job because he wanted to have some flexibility in his schedule so he can help his son find a college.
“There’s definitely more interesting jobs,” Mr. Wilson said, noting that he will be serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year in the Army National Guard.
On Saturday, February 7, Mr. Wilson officially joined his unit, the 3rd Battalion 142nd Aviation Unit, which is based out of MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma. He will fulfill his duties at the Islip Town airport.
Some members of his outfit are currently deployed in Iraq, though they are expected to return home later this year, Mr. Wilson said. And it is possible that he will be deployed to Afghanistan within the next two years.
Ms. Sullivan said she does not know how she would handle things if her fiance was deployed overseas.
“I don’t know how these families do it,” she said. “The not knowing is the worst.”
Though he enjoys the attention he is receiving for enlisting in the Army National Guard so late in life, Mr. Wilson said what he has accomplished pales in comparison to the achievements of those men and women who have devoted their lives to the military.
“It’s nice to get the recognition, but those are the guys who deserve the respect,” he said, referring to the soldiers who have completed three or four tours in Iraq. “Those guys have really committed.”