In December, just before the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry Regiment was mobilized for the war in Iraq, Sgt. James Flores' 23-year-old son asked him, "Dad, why do you have to do something like this at your age?" Flores, 49, replied, "Son, it's still my turn."
Flores was to report for active duty at noon, Dec. 27. At 10:15 that morning, he hurried into the office of a justice of the peace near Kissimmee, his fiancee in tow, to get a marriage license. The clerk said there was a three-day waiting period. "Ma'am, I can't wait that long," Flores said. "I'm going to war." The clerk replied, "Let me see what the judge says."
Twenty minutes later, he and his bride were married, and about an hour after that, Flores was an active-duty soldier, beginning the long journey to Iraq, where the 124th remains, having been in the war zone longer than any other U.S. unit.
A few days ago, resting on his cot after a nighttime patrol in the brutal streets of Baghdad, Flores, a grandfather, sat bolt upright: "It hit me all of a sudden. I said, 'Oh, Lord, I turn 50 tomorrow.' I never thought in my lifetime that I'd be at war at that age."
With his birthday, which he celebrated on another patrol, Flores dashed the notion that war belongs to only the young and joined a minority of servicemen and women who, at 50 and above, have gone to battle.
Fewer than 1% of U.S. troops are in the 50-to-59-year-old bracket, which makes up 12% of the nation's population.
While it is not unusual for senior officers and noncommissioned officers to achieve "senior citizen" status in the military -- Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition troops in Iraq, is 52 -- Flores is still one of the foot soldiers, pulling guard duty, eating MREs, staying in shape and, as best he can, thinking young.
"To tell you the truth, I don't see much difference between what I do and what a 19-year-old does," said Flores, who works two jobs as a cook back home in Kissimmee. "I passed the annual PT [physical training] test, and I saw some 22-year-olds who couldn't. That made me feel really proud."
Like Flores, most in the 50-and-over crowd are members of the National Guard or Reserves. With the regular Army downsized and stretched thin by commitments in places ranging from South Korea and the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq, members of the Guard and Reserves, once weekend warriors, are increasingly an integral part of the nation's active-duty forces. The Army's strength has fallen from 770,000 soldiers in 1989 to 480,000.
Nearly 38,000 National Guard troops and reservists are in the Middle East, deployed in the Iraq effort. The Guard's Iraq mission is by far the largest "peacetime" deployment in what it calls its 367-year history.
"What keeps these people in the military after they've hit 50, an age when a lot of people that old are thinking about security and retirement?" wondered Roy Martin, 71, former commanding general of the Maine Air National Guard's 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor.
"The common denominators that come to mind are patriotism, the financial rewards of a pension at 60, the esprit de corps of the unit, the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile," said Martin, interviewed in Maine. "They bring leadership and experience that comes with age. For instance, I've heard an instructor pilot in the Air Force might have something like 2,000 hours. Our guys are apt to have double that."
Jim Coles, a spokesman for the Army Reserves in Atlanta, said that when it comes to soldiers over 50, "we recognize that people that age aren't four-minute milers. But younger people look up to them. They're savvy.
"I remember one of Steve McQueen's last movies. He played an aging bounty hunter, and the trailer for the movie said, 'He may be slower, but don't turn your back.' "
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Vietnam veteran Clarence Kugler is, at 59, preparing to go off to another war soon, this one as a sergeant first class in the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion. He returned to the military, through the Army Reserves, in 1989 after more than a decade as a civilian. "This war will be my swan song," he said.
"I don't think anyone in the military in his 50s considers himself an average older person," Kugler said. "You've got to be motivated to stay in the game. I still get up and run five or six miles in the morning. I've done two Ironman triathlons and I've swum around the Statue of Liberty. When I do my morning run, once two guys help me off the truck and I'm on flat ground, I can run as fast as anybody. I'm hell on wheels on the flats.
"I was running with a young kid the other day in Miami. He told me his father was 41 and his grandfather 57. He said, 'How old are you?' I told him, 'I think your grandfather and I were probably in high school together.' The kid just stared at me."
When Kugler was in Hungary last year, helping train Iraqi exiles in the fight against Saddam Hussein, his fellow soldiers called him "Old School" after the recent movie about thirtysomething men forming their own fraternity house.
He told his interpreter in Hungary he was surprised at the politeness of Arabs; they always let him go to the front of the cafeteria line. His interpreter said: "Don't you know why that is? It's because you're so old. Arabs respect elders."
At the end of Proctor Road in Olla, La., there is a small brick house. American flags hang in the two windows facing the road and a sign by the door says, "We Support the 1087th Transportation Company." Sgt. Floyd Knighten Jr.'s Honda motorcycle is parked outside the garage, covered by a tarpaulin. His wife, Lisa Soledad, doesn't know what her husband did with the keys and is unsure whether it's operable or broken down.
"I told him he's too old for war," she said. "You don't do something like this when you're 55. But he just perked up when he learned he was going overseas to protect his country. If he had the same choice again, I know what he'd do. He'd go.
"What the Guard told me was that his convoy stopped on some road in Iraq so the men could stretch and rest. Daddy -- that's what I always called Floyd -- lay down, like he wanted to take a nap. The heat was terrible.
"I was always telling him when he called, 'Make sure you drink enough water.' The other men got back into their trucks after a while, but he just stayed there, sort of sleeping. I think he must have been very tired."
Military authorities determined that Knighten's death Aug. 9 was from natural causes, related to the 130-degree heat. He is one of four U.S. soldiers over 50 to die in Iraq.
Knighten, a veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, had deployed to Iraq with the 1087th accompanied by his best friend, his 21-year-old son, Floyd Knighten III.
Soledad reminisced that her son had joined his father's National Guard unit to fulfill a promise made after the elder Knighten headed for Saudi Arabia in 1991: "This is the last time you'll go to war alone, Dad. If there's another one, I want to go with you."
Nearly 400 people -- most of the town of Olla -- showed up for Knighten's funeral. The commanding general of the Louisiana National Guard was there, and six active or retired guardsmen carried his coffin. He was buried over the hill from his home in his dress green uniform, medals on his chest, his hands gloved. His wife carried a folded American flag and bent over the casket to whisper, "Daddy, you look just like Michael Jackson with those white gloves."
"To me, he was so beautiful," said Soledad, a Filipina who married Knighten in Manila during an R&R; stop during the Vietnam War in 1972. "He made me feel so alive. He made me see the world. He treated me like a beautiful, precious flower."
In Iraq, Staff Sgt. Paul Stevens, 52, thought for a moment about his age, then said, "Well, some people tell me I may be the oldest squad gunner -- machine gunner -- in the infantry." He quickly added that he relished duty with the Florida National Guard here.
"This is why I stayed in the reserves," said Stevens, who's in Iraq with Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry. "To serve. It's an honor for me to serve at this age."
A two-tour Vietnam veteran who rejoined the military after 13 years as a civilian so he could fight in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Stevens knows Charlie Company's younger soldiers view him with a touch of awe.
"The way this thing is going," said a 19-year-old specialist eyeing Stevens, "I may be as old as he is by the time I get out of Iraq."
"We figured we'd be guarding a Patriot site or something," Stevens said. "But we got lucky and got assigned to the Special Forces, training in Jordan for pilot rescue. It was a lot of night training. The terrain was terrible, like walking on the moon. You'd fall over stones, hit the ground, roll and get up and go on. With my machine gun, 600 rounds of ammunition and body armor, I figure I was carrying 80 or 100 pounds.
"Sometimes I was really hurting. But the younger guys were hurting worse. Some of them broke and had to drop out. I never got to that point. Sure, the younger guys kind of joke about my age. But that doesn't bother me at all. I think it's pretty cool. Just like I think it's pretty cool we crossed the berm into Iraq two days before the war started."
Three times, Stevens' unit has been told it was going home. And three times the orders have been rescinded. Now it looks as though the Floridians will spend a full year in Iraq. Stevens said his administrative job at the airport authority in Sanford, Fla., is secure and his boss has even promised he can have the same shift -- 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weekends off -- when he returns.
His wife, he said, "definitely wants me home, like now." When he left for Jordan in February, she asked, "There won't be a next time, will there?" And Stevens replied, "Well, sweetheart, we'll just have to see about that."