By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 10, 2008 - Forty years ago, they were young Americans serving in the war in Vietnam. Today, they are seasoned veterans returning to combat as members of the Florida Army National Guard, and bringing their years of experience to younger soldiers who are starting their first deployment. Army Staff Sgt. Paul Weekley, 58, and Army Sgt. Luther Boyett, 59, are deploying to Iraq with Company B, 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, capping off military service that began in the late 1960s in Vietnam.
The two soldiers appear noticeably older than their counterparts in the unit – gray hair and a few wrinkles show their ages – but their resolute composures and confidence attest that the men have seen the toils of combat and are ready to serve one more time.
And according to both the veterans and their peers, experience does count in a combat zone.
"This will probably be no different than when I went to Vietnam, except it's desert this time instead of swamp," Weekley said with a chuckle prior to his unit's departure from Pensacola on Oct. 3.
Weekley, who will turn 59 in January, served in an Army supply unit in Vietnam and joined the Florida National Guard in 1973. He has spent most of his Guard career in the 146th, and has a grandson serving in the 82nd Airborne Division who also is preparing to go to Iraq. He said he hopes to cross paths with his grandson while both are in Iraq.
"If I can get over there and get with him, I'm going to try," Weekley said. "It isn't every day you get grandfather and grandson serving together over there."
Boyett, who will turn 60 on July 4 while in Iraq, said this will be his fourth time serving in a combat zone and his second tour to Iraq. He served in the Navy in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, and after several years away from military service, he joined the Georgia National Guard in 1994.
As a Guardsman, he served in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and deployed to Iraq in 2005. When Boyett returned in 2006, he joined the Florida National Guard as a light-wheeled vehicle mechanic.
"The National Guard really helped me stay in physical and mental shape," Boyett explained, noting the benefits of serving in the military at an age when many already have retired.
Both veterans said their experience will be valuable while in Iraq, especially since they're deploying with some soldiers who are nearly a third of their age.
"I'm a firm believer that it's up to us old soldiers to pass on our knowledge, our experience, to the younger soldiers so they can survive the next combat zone," said Boyett, whose son served in Afghanistan and recently retired from the Air Force. "Combat zones change, but soldiers never change."
During his recent deployment to Iraq, he coached younger, inexperienced soldiers about living and working in a combat zone, and he said they took his advice to heart. The lessons were as simple as reacting in a firefight or building a solid bunker from sandbags.
"It probably saved 12 or 15 lives, because I've had younger soldiers come up to me and say 'Sergeant Boyett, if you hadn't told me your war stories, I wouldn't have known what to do,'" he said.
Boyett and Weekley said this definitely will be their final combat tour because of their ages.
"This is the last go-around for us, because both of us will be 60 years old," Weekley said. "At 60, they're either going to put you out or you're going to retire."
Two of the youngest soldiers deploying with the 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion are brothers – Pfcs. Brandon and Richard Mcalphin – and they affirmed they would be taking advice from veteran noncommissioned officers like Boyett and Weekley during their time in Iraq.
"They've been there; they have the experience, so we listen to them and do what they tell us," Brandon, 19, said. "They've already done this."
The brothers are volunteers from other Florida Army National Guard units, and said they not only are ready, but also are excited about the deployment.
"I think it's pretty cool," Richard, 20, explained. "I originally volunteered, and then [Brandon] thought it was a good idea. I think we're going to have fun doing it."
The unit departed from Florida on Oct. 6 for additional training at Fort Bliss, Texas, before flying to Southwest Asia. They will join more than 325 other Florida Army National Guard soldiers from their battalion headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla.
While deployed in Iraq, the soldiers will operate specialized equipment that allows commanders and coalition forces to communicate during missions. The soldiers will install, maintain and operate communications sites throughout Iraq.
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa serves in the Florida National Guard Public Affairs Office.)