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The Navy has raised its age limit as the U.S. military faces a deep recruiting slump

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. military is having trouble finding enough recruits. Maybe they want B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music, to compose a battle hymn. So with fewer young adults signing up, the Navy has decided to give older potential recruits a chance. Jay Price of member station WUNC sends us this report from Encinitas, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Swami's Beach, one of the best surfing spots in Southern California and a kind of paradise - perfect, clear water below palm-topped cliffs. Matthew Allen calls it his office. On a recent springlike morning, he was there coaching 11-year-old Ray Goodson.

MATTHEW ALLEN: What I want to focus on today - you know, what we talked about easing into the session, finding your rhythm, not rushing it.

PRICE: Allen has lived a laid-back dream in Maui and Southern California - surfing big waves, fronting a bar band.

ALLEN: I've been fortunate enough to make this a life for 20 years. To me, that's unreal.

PRICE: Not what you'd expect a 41-year-old surfing school owner to give up to join the Navy. Allen, whose father is a retired Marine, had begun feeling like he owes a big debt to the nation that made it all possible.

ALLEN: I'm always trying to balance how good this is with, can I give something back to deserve this?

PRICE: And suddenly, he can, thanks to a Navy policy change. When Allen walked into a recruiter's office last summer, he was already two years past the age limit of 39. But a few months later, after he lobbied every Navy official he could reach, his recruiter called and said the Navy had raised its age limit to 41. That's the oldest of any service. The Marines, for example, have a ceiling of 28 unless you get a special waiver. And the Army - 35. But the Navy's national chief recruiter says older recruits can do well.

GERALD ALLCHIN: We don't have a high attrition rate through the first term of somebody that's 38 or 39 years old. So I think that it's safe to assume that somebody that's 40 or 41 years old would probably be in the same performance categories.

PRICE: That's Master Chief Petty Officer Gerald Allchin. He says Allen's late-blooming interest isn't as unusual as it might seem. Many older recruits wanted to join when they were young, but, for whatever reason, couldn't, or, like Allen, just began feeling a need to do something more meaningful.

ALLCHIN: A lot of times, it's for that pride of belonging, the patriotism, the want or the need to serve something bigger than themselves.

PRICE: And literally being more mature, they often have a better understanding of what it takes to do well and are able to move quickly into leadership roles. The Navy has also eased other restrictions including those on single parents, people with prominent tattoos, and those who initially test positive for marijuana even though it's now legal in many states. Allchin says it just makes good sense to open the door to recruits who are likely to make solid sailors but are blocked by outdated standards.

ALLCHIN: Especially if the data says that they're going to perform at the same rate.

PRICE: Allen is a case study in the Navy's new rules. Even after the age change, he needed several waivers including one more than a hundred pages long for his 43 tattoos - mostly images tied to surfing and music. A coin-sized image of a spider web inside one ear held things up for several days. But finally, that, too, was approved. Allen's recruiter, Petty Officer Edward Smith, said he's never worked with a recruit who was so motivated or who had to be.

EDWARD SMITH: It was a few waivers - it was quite a bit to overcome - and he's been there every step of the way and never backed down, always welcomed the challenge.

PRICE: The Navy needs a lot more Matt Allens though. Allchin, the national chief recruiter, says it's competing with civilian employers that also are struggling to find enough workers and have had to up their own games with more pay and benefits. Before, the Navy had an edge by offering benefits like housing and medical care. Now, though, it's having to go a little further and a little older. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Encinitas, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.