Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Face of Defense: War Bride, Military Mom, Soldier Serves in Iraq

By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service

Aug. 5, 2008 - Two years after the
Army raised the maximum age for enlistees, it is not uncommon to find soldiers over the age of 40 in the junior enlisted ranks. Some served in their younger years; others just always wanted to serve. Still others followed in their children's footsteps to the recruiting office.

Army Spc. Gina Keller, a war bride and a military mother in addition to being a soldier, said her service is the realization of a dream she had for more than 20 years.

"I always wanted to join the service," she said. "I tried at 18, but because of family values and respect for my family, I chose not to."

Keller said her parents didn't think joining the
military was the right move for her at that time. In the meantime, she started a family of her own and put her dream of military service on hold. Her children -- three sons and a daughter -- came first, she said. But she always hoped the chance to serve would come again.

"I still knew that if someday it came around, that I could do it," she said.

At age 40, Keller learned the age limit for enlistment had been raised to 39. She sought a waiver to join the National Guard, but was turned down.

"My heart was broken," she said. "I thought I would never get to do this."

Months passed. Then she heard the
Army had raised the age limit again, to 42. An Army recruiter called her the next day and asked her if she still wanted to join.

"I was always hoping and praying somehow I'd make this goal, this dream, happen," she said.

Her eldest son, Isaac, had just joined the National Guard, and mother and son shipped off to basic training within days of each other. He went to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Keller left for Fort Jackson, S.C.

Despite the rigors of basic training, Keller proved herself in a group of younger recruits. Drill sergeants didn't treat her any differently, she said, and the woman drill sergeants were the hardest on her.

"I was called 'grandma' and 'old lady' most of the time I was there," she recalled, noting that her fellow soldiers helped her manage the
stress of the training.

After basic
training, Keller completed her advanced individual training, qualifying as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic. Then, in a strange twist, she received orders to report to her new unit, 92nd Engineer Brigade -- her son Andrew's unit.

"He said, 'You can't be coming here.' I said, 'Yes, I am," she recalled with a laugh. Keller said Andrew pleaded with his company's first sergeant, "You can't let that happen; I can't have my mom here."

Worries of standing next to Mom in formation subsided right away. Andrew deployed to Iraq, expecting to return home in October 2007. He had not seen his mother in 18 months, and the day of his scheduled return turned out to be the day of his mother's departure; she received orders to deploy to Iraq, too.

Things were happening fast for the 42-year-old single parent. She relocated with her youngest child, now 13, to Fort Stewart, Ga., and began preparing for a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's 703rd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team. Her commander allowed her an extra 10 days before deploying to spend time with Andrew. Mother and son bonded in a new way; he helped her pack her bags and advised her on her upcoming journey.

"He knew what I had to face," she said. "He knew where I was going."

Keller said the prospect of a long deployment didn't discourage her.

"I wanted to try and accomplish the rest of my goal, which was to come to the service and to serve the soldiers. I knew what the soldiers had to go through; I saw my sons go through it, and I wanted to be here to be of service to them," she said.

"All the way through basic
training they kept emphasizing that we were going to be deployed. I was wholeheartedly engaged with the fact that I was going to serve my country, one way or the other," Keller said. "Whatever my country expected of me, that's what I was going to do."

While at Fort Stewart, Keller had another surprise in store for her. On the rifle range one day, she met the man who would become her husband. "I wasn't looking for anybody to be my significant other when I got to Fort Stewart," she recalled.

Army Sgt. Kevin Keller was working safety duty on the range that day, and while he was helping her adjust the sights on her rifle, they struck up a friendship.

"He came over to me in the foxhole and said, 'What are you shooting at?' I said, 'The targets, Sergeant.' He said, 'Well, you're not hitting any of them.'"

After their first meeting, she began seeing him around the motor pool; she worked there as a mechanic, and he worked as a fuel specialist. He was a sergeant and she was a private first class, which made a relationship challenging.

Though they served in separate companies in the same battalion, rules against such a relationship drew criticism from their
leaders. But, Keller said, the sergeant's warmth and confidence won her over.

"He said from the first day he met me, 'You're going to marry me.' He was telling everybody," she recalled.

There was little time for courtship, though. Deployed together to Iraq, the two were stationed here with different jobs and schedules that prevented them from seeing much of each other.

Still, their relationship was the cause of talk, so in January they decided to do something about it. Taking leave together, they went home to the United States to get married. Within two days of their arrival, they were officially husband and wife. Then, they went back to Iraq.

Serving together as newlyweds has afforded the two a unique version of marital bliss. Though they do not share living quarters and they work different hours in different places, they enjoy the moments they do spend together. They often share meals in the dining facility, and Specialist Keller frequently takes iced tea to her husband on the job.

Though their marriage so far has been spent mostly apart while serving in a combat zone, Specialist Keller said, she has not been disappointed with her deployment.

"I've enjoyed everything that I've done," she said. "I've always felt that when soldiers accept me as working hard and getting them where they need to be, helping them accomplish their mission -- that is my reward," she said.

With her two-year enlistment soon to be over, Specialist Keller said she wanted to re-enlist, "but Sergeant Keller had other plans for me," she said. "He said that since he was retiring, I would be 'retiring,' too."

The couple plans to purchase five acres of land and build their own house. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Specialist Keller said she plans to do the work herself. Her previous civilian job was as a carpenter.

Others like her shouldn't be afraid of the challenge to serve their country, she said.

"For anybody over 40 who really wants to come to the service, there is a very big reward here," she explained. "You have to come here open-minded; you can't come here as your own individual. You have to be willing to change, and you have to be willing to serve."

Army Sgt. David Turner serves with the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)

Panel Recommends Changes to Military Retirement

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

Aug. 5, 2008 - A panel looking at
military compensation has recommended dramatic changes in the military retirement system. The recommendations are part of the second volume put out by the 10th Quadrennial Review of military Compensation.

The first volume -- released in March -- looked at cash compensation. Retired
Air Force Brig. Gen. Jan D. "Denny" Eakle was director of the panel, and she briefed the press during a Pentagon news conference today.

Eakle said critics of the current military retirement system say it is not equitable, it is not flexible, and it is not efficient.

"There is a perception that the system we have today is inequitable because only 15 percent of all enlisted personnel and less than half of officers will ever receive anything in the system," she said. Reserve-component personnel also believe the current system discriminates against them, especially at a time when reserve forces are being called on more, she said.

The retirement proposal would offer a defined benefit, defined contributions, "gate" pays and separation pays.

The defined benefit would be 2.5 percent of the average basic pay for the highest 36 months of the individual's career multiplied by the number of years of service, with servicemembers vested at 10 years of service. Payments to retirees would begin at age 60 for those with less than 20 years of service and at age 57 for those with 20 years of service or more.

Servicemembers could opt for an immediate annuity, but the payout would follow the Federal Employee Retirement System methodology -- a 5 percent penalty per year for early withdrawal.

The defined contribution portion would be an automatic government-funded Thrift Savings Plan. Servicemembers would not have to match any government payment. The government would not put any money in for the first year, but would put in 2 percent of base pay for two years of service, 3 percent for three and four years of service, and 5 percent for five and more years of service. Again, this would be vested after 10 years of service.

military also would make "gate pays" to servicemembers who reach specific years of service. These would vary by years of service and skills, Eakle said.

"This is a payment made for achieving a particular year of service," she explained. "And within the services, they would have the flexibility to vary this by year of service as well as by skill. That way, they could begin to shape the skills by dragging people further into their career by offering them an incentive."

Finally, the system would include separation pays to servicemembers that would also vary by years of service and skills.

"The separation payments would be made available by the service to members that they wished to entice to leave," Eakle said. This would be a permanent tool services would have available, she added.

The panel used a Rand Corporation computer model to test the recommendations, but Eakle said the panel members would like a large-scale test in the Defense Department.

"Therefore, the recommendation of this QRMC is that the Department of Defense conduct a multi-year test of this system," Eakle said. "The way the test would work is this: All four services would be asked to identify some skills that have different types of retention patterns -- some that stay not very long, some that stay longer periods of time -- and ones they wish to influence."

The test would offer people in those skills in the first eight years of service an opportunity to volunteer.

"If someone was selected for the test, they would be paid all of the TSP that they should have earned up until that point, and it will be put in their TSP account for them," she said. "The program's vesting rules would in fact apply to all those individuals. So should they achieve 10 years of service while they are in the test, they would fully own it."

At the end of the test period, people who are in the new system who wish to revert to the original retirement system would be allowed to do so, she said.

Any change in the retirement system would require action by Congress. DoD officials said they will carefully examine the panel's recommendations and then decide if they should move forward. The study will take at least six to 12 months, so any decision would be made by the next administration, DoD officials added.