"Older" Recruits Find Their Second Act in the Air National Guard

Trainee Mathias Sendekie performs a push-up during a drill weekend at the 129th Rescue Wing, April 3, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Brian Jarvis/Released)

Trainee Mathias Sendekie performs a push-up during a drill weekend at the 129th Rescue Wing, April 3, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Brian Jarvis/Released)

Senior Airman Sara Van Til (right) shares a moment with her son, Niko, at Moffett Federal Airfield, December 15, 2016. Van Til enlisted at age 39 thanks to Niko's urging (Courtesy photo/Released).

Senior Airman Sara Van Til (right) shares a moment with her son, Niko, at Moffett Federal Airfield, December 15, 2016. Van Til enlisted at age 39 thanks to Niko's urging (Courtesy photo/Released).

MOFFETT AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, CA -- It used to be that if you joined the military after the age of 30, you were a dinosaur.

Long considered a young person's game, the military has typically aimed its recruiting efforts at teenagers, enticing them with the lure of travel and adventure.  

In a post 9/11 world, however, as the needs of the military have evolved in order to engage multiple global conflicts, those with non-prior service can often enlist well into their 30s and, in the Air National Guard, up to age 40.  

A Double Dream

At the 129th Rescue Wing, the opportunity can be life-changing for those who didn't get the chance to serve when they were younger.

"It was something I always dreamed about," said Mathias Sendekie, 31, of San Jose, who is studying to be an aeronautic engineer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "I like to be challenged physically and mentally, and I hope this will challenge me to get the most out of myself and my talents. I'm pretty excited."

Sendekie's military dream doubles as an American dream, given his journey to the U.S. in 2010 from his native Ethiopia.
"I was always interested in the Air Force and tried to enlist, but in my country it is very elite and they take only a limited number of people. The other military branches there can be horrible, because you'll be a soldier and first in line to get killed, and your friends will get killed. Not everyone gets to be in the Air Force."

After completing a four-year program in business administration at the University of Gondar, Sendekie leaped at the chance to come to the U.S. on a diversity visa. Out of about 90 million yearly applicants, he was one of only 1,200 recipients.

"I was lucky to get it," said Sendekie, who was 25 at the time. "You fill out the application online like a lottery and compete to get one. It was a big decision for me to leave everything behind and make the sacrifice."
He now attends the 129th Student Flight program alongside his fellow trainees, many of whom are recently out of high school. After he completes his initial training, Sendekie plans to join the 129th Maintenance Squadron as an Aircraft Integrated Electric & Environmental Systems Specialist.

"The other trainees are awesome," he said. "They are my wingmen, a very peaceful group of people. And I have never seen these kind of planes before. Obviously the military gets the best, I believe, and that's going to expose me to a lot of new technologies."

For Sendekie, who is scheduled to ship off to Basic Military Training in May 2017, serving his country is also a sign of assimilation and belonging on a deeper level.

"If you think about it, it's giving back to a society that gave me a chance to come here and work, and to make my life better than it used to be. The opportunity was given to me by the American people, and I believe in making sure the American people are safe, and also making sure that I am safe. Here they are teaching me discipline and to live with principles every day, not just one day. That's the most enjoyable thing so far."

Like Son, Like Mother

At age 39 when she raised her right hand to take the oath of enlistment, Sara Van Til was in her last year of eligibility to serve her country.

"I wanted to when I was a younger but couldn't. As a single parent, I had to wait until my son was old enough," said Van Til, a Santa Cruz native who now resides in San Jose. "A lot of people thought I was crazy, but they know me so they weren't surprised I would do something as challenging as that." 

Working as an admin with the NASA Ames Research Group, Van Til was already familiar with the 129th Rescue Wing on the other side of campus--especially because by then her son, Niko, was a Guard member himself with the 129th Maintenance Squadron.   

Niko, who was 19 at the time, received a $2,000 bonus for convincing his mother to enlist--which he promptly invested in a classic Mustang. 

"He was pretty proud of me," Van Til said. "Of course afterward he got teased a lot by the guys that he worked with, who would tell him, 'Say hi to your mom for me.' I'm sure he heard every 'Yo mama' joke possible. But I loved us being at the same Guard wing together."

To prepare for basic training, Van Til worked out regularly and even did boot camps with local MMA fighters and female bodybuilders. Over the course of her eight and a half weeks at Lackland AFB, she often found herself in the role of mentor to her fellow trainees.

"A lot of the younger girls there had never been away from home, or had a hard time just having a strange man yell at them," Van Til recalled. "I had to remind them why they were there and give them hope that it would be over at some point. Most nights I didn't sleep because I had to pull guard duty or talk to someone who was struggling with being there. The hardest part was never getting enough sleep."

Now a Senior Airman with more than five years at the 129th Medical Group, Van Til recently completed Airman Leadership School and today works in Personnel as a Command Support Staff technician with the 129th Operations Group, 131st Rescue Squadron. She spends her free time writing letters of encouragement to female trainees while they're in the throes of basic training.  

"A lot of things make the job difficult and challenging, having to change gears as quickly as we do, and often we're understaffed with a small budget and don't have the money for a full-time position. It's just the nature of the business. But I love our mission, and I believe in our mission. I just want something where I can continue to support our mission and become a better Airman."

Growing Numbers

For potential candidates out there who are afraid of getting laughed out of a military recruiting office, the pros say not to let a gray hair or a facial line keep you from opening the door. If anything, the number of older recruits is growing.

MSgt Kevin Centinaje, the recruiting and retention manager for the 129th, says that about 70 percent of all applicants that he's seen within the past three years have been over the age of 30.                                   

"These folks bring a lot of life experience and maturity. As an applicant, we can get straight to the point without having to jump through hoops or go talk to Mom," Centinaje said. "When you've already had four or five jobs, you know what life brings and that if you work hard, you'll get recognized for it. Truth be told, a lot of applicants who enlist at 30 or older are more successful."

According to Centinaje, applicants vary from Starbucks baristas to web developers and assistant district attorneys. If there is an obstacle facing older recruits, it's the fact that their lives tend to be more established with active families and demanding civilian jobs to negotiate, which can make it difficult to leave for extended periods. 

Recruiters, for their part, stress that all military decisions--from enlistment to a voluntary deployment--should be family decisions. But age should not be the issue.   

"If you're under 40, there's no reason to hesitate. As long as you're qualified, you can bring a lot to the fight," Centinaje said. "Our age doesn't define our military career; it's what we do, how we train and how we support our mission. Whether you're prior service and want to come back, or you have no military experience at all, we'd like to hear from you."

Senior Airman Brian Jarvis enlisted in the California Air National Guard at the age of 36. He is scheduled to deploy in 2017.

To contact a recruiter at the 129th Rescue Wing, call 650-603-9570 or email usaf.ca.129-rqw.mbx.recruiting@mail.mil. Or to learn more about the Air National Guard in your respective area visit www.goang.com.