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Octogenarian receives recruiting letters inviting him to re-enlist

WASHINGTON—The last time Dr. Floyd Baker served in the U.S. Army, Harry S. Truman was president, Dinah Shore's "Buttons and Bows" topped the music charts, "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" won an Oscar and the bikini made its debut on American beaches.

So the 84-year-old semi-retired dentist from Philadelphia was a little surprised last August when he got a letter from a local Army recruiting station inviting him to re-enlist.

"I was honorably discharged in 1948," said Baker, who was drafted in 1946 and left the Army with captain's bars on his shoulders. "I thought the letter belonged to somebody else, knowing when I got in the Army and when I got out. I thought it was a mistake."

He started believing that maybe it wasn't when he got a similar letter two months later offering him a $30,000 signing bonus, a $58,646 loan-repayment option and a "generous retirement plan" to re-up.

Help the soldiers "on the front line fighting the war on terrorism," it said. "Among the difficulties facing them are receiving adequate dental care prior to being sent to areas of danger and conflict. Our soldiers are sacrificing so much for us and we would greatly appreciate the services of fine professionals like you."

Baker really began thinking the Army's offer was serious after he talked last week to a senior-citizen friend at a Philadelphia-area Veterans Administration facility who'd received a similar letter.

Army officials, after a few gasps and guffaws upon hearing of the letters, called them an honest mistake.

"We need dentists, but we don't need them quite that old," said Maj. Tanya Beecher, a Fort Knox, Ky., Army operations officer who helps process waiver requests for older enlistees. "We're pushing it when we request (a waiver) for someone 67."

A spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox said Baker's letter probably had resulted from someone not checking ages along with names from recruiting efforts or the mass-mailing lists the Army buys from marketing firms.

"Normally, we try to suppress these people—people who are too young or too old or currently in the military," Beecher said. "It's not foolproof, but we try to suppress them."

Baker's letters may be a simple bureaucratic mistake, but they're also symptomatic of how the U.S. military is struggling to fill its ranks as it's stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq. To help keep its numbers up, the Army recently expanded a little-used program to recall officers and enlisted personnel to serve voluntarily for up to a year.

More than 300 Army retirees from their mid-40s to their late 60s are on active duty through the program, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army personnel spokesman.

"There were a couple of guys brought back who are really old, in their 60s," Hilferty said. "One went to Iraq. He's a medical professional."

The Army is still looking for a few good dentists. Currently, 938 dentists are on active duty in the Army, short of the 1,015 the service is authorized to carry, according to Defense Department figures. Fort Knox's Beecher said the Army was trying to recruit 30 dentists for active duty and 48 more for the Army Reserve.

Whether the letters were a mistake or not, Baker said re-enlisting didn't fit into his plans for his golden years, even though "my wife and children say I should go back in with that much signing money" being offered.

"I told him, `We can do this,'" Baker's 70-year-old wife, Gerty, said jokingly. "I thought the letter was a hoot. I'm going to frame it."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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