Struggling to meet its recruiting goals, the Navy is now accepting enlistees as old as 41
Matt Allen’s entire adult life has been a kind of laid-back dream. Hunting big waves, fronting a band, and now running a surfing school at one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California.
His lifestyle has been so idyllic that MTV even briefly built a reality show around it, when he was younger and living with a group of surfers in Maui.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to make this a life for 20 years,” Allen said, standing on the beach in his dripping wetsuit after teaching a session. “To me, that’s unreal.”
Now though, at age 41, he’s trading it all in. To join the Navy.
“It's an amazing lifestyle for sure, and it's special, and it's unique," he said. "But it's also pretty selfish in a way, so I want to give back for all the privileges I've been afforded, living where I live and being able to do what I’ve been doing.”
He is, by several accounts, one of the most motivated Navy recruits in recent memory. But his enlistment wouldn’t have been possible without recent changes in Navy policy. The Navy has raised the maximum age for new enlisted recruits from 39 to 41.
The change comes as the military struggles through one of its toughest recruiting slumps ever. The armed services are competing with civilian employers that have boosted pay and benefits to attract workers.
The new Navy age limit is the oldest of any of the services. The Marines have a ceiling of 28 without a special waiver. The Army maximum is 35.
But the Navy’s national chief recruiter said data shows older recruits can do well.
“We don't have a high attrition rate through the first term on somebody that's 38 or 39 years old,” said Master Chief Petty Office Gerald Allchin. “So I think it's safe to assume that somebody that's 40 or 41 years old would probably be in the same performance categories."
He said Allen’s late-blooming interest in military service isn’t as unusual as it may seem. Many older recruits wanted to join when they were young, but for whatever reason couldn’t. Others, like Allen, just began feeling a need to do something more meaningful.
“A lot of times it’s for that pride of belonging, the patriotism, the want or the need to serve something bigger than themselves,” Allchin said.
Navy leaders expect the age change to attract just 50 to 100 recruits a year. But it’s one of several changes designed to attract enlistees who Allchin said are likely to make good sailors, but were blocked by standards that didn’t reflect current society or weren’t based on solid data.
The Navy has also eased its rules about enlisting single parents, people with prominent tattoos, and recruits who initially test positive for marijuana use, though Allchin stressed that recruits still have to pass a follow-up test and can't use drugs after they're in.
As part of a pilot program, the Navy also reduced the minimum required score for its written aptitude test. Recruiters across the military have said test scores were affected by the drop in the quality of high school education during the pandemic, and recruits can still be solid sailors even if they score lower.
As for the age limit, each service branch sets its own, but federal law says they can be as high as 42 years old.
“A lot of the things that we’re doing and the levers we’re pulling are just opening up the aperture to put the Navy in line with more federal statutes and federal laws, so we can have every opportunity to grow our market as much as possible but also provide the opportunities to the public," Allchin said.
That wider aperture was what Allen needed.
When he walked into a recruiter’s office last summer, Allen was already two years past the previous age limit of 39.
But he took the initial “no” as a challenge and began lobbying every Navy official he could reach and gathering recommendation letters, even though he was told that probably wouldn’t help.
“It started as this just unfulfilled little thing in the back of my head, and it turned into like, ‘Okay, well, how can I go about this?’”
Then in November, his recruiter called and said the Navy had raised its age limit to 41.
Allen suspects his lobbying was behind the age change, but a spokeswoman for Navy Recruiting Command said the timing was coincidental.
Even when he got over the age hurdle, there were more challenges. Indeed, Allen became a case study in the Navy's new rules.
He got married to avoid the risk of being turned down because he was a single parent. Allen said he and his long-time partner had been planning to wed for years, but put their plans on hold when the pandemic hit.
He also needed several waivers, including one for past speeding tickets, another for a minor back injury that healed long ago, and yet another for his 43 tattoos.
Each tattoo had to be carefully documented with photographs and paperwork to ensure they weren’t, for instance, connected with a crime gang or tied to white supremacy.
Allen had several days of suspense over whether a coin-sized tattoo of a spider web inside his ear met regulations that limit which parts of the body can be tattooed. The Navy eventually approved it, which wouldn’t have been possible before the Navy eased its tattoo limits last year.
Allen said all the lobbying and getting the waivers was almost like a job for the past few months.
In the process, his story became a topic among Navy recruiting brass. His recruiter in Mission Viejo, Cal., Petty Officer Edward Smith, said Allen was the most motivated recruit he's ever encountered.
“It was a lot of waivers. It was quite a bit to overcome,” Smith said. “And he’s been there every step of the way, never backed down, always welcomed the challenge."
In early January, Allen was sworn in. He’s expected to reach basic training just days ahead of his 42nd birthday.
“Forty-one is the new 21,” he quipped.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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