At a time in life when most veterans can safely reflect on how much, or how little, has changed since their military service, Sonny Durenleau went off to war this week. The 57-year-old Williston resident -- balding, with thick, gold-rimmed glasses, baggy jeans pulled up high on his waist -- said good-bye to his four children and two grandchildren to join fellow Vermont National Guardsmen heading for Mississippi, then on to Iraq.
Durenleau's first tour of duty came in 1968 when he was drafted to go to Vietnam but instead got stationed in Thailand for 14 months. Then, in 1974, he joined the National Guard and spent the next 30 years working for the military. Though Durenleau was eligible to retire several years ago, in 2000 he signed up for another six years so he could retire at age 60 with full benefits. Now, as he faces combat for the first time in his life -- as a mortar operator -- Durenleau joins the more than 4000 other men and women over the age of 50 who are currently serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At his going-away party last week, Durenleau's friends and colleagues at Vermont Adult Learning in Colchester reflected on his impending deployment and talked about how Durenleau seems more like a poster child for adult literacy than Army recruitment. In 1991, Durenleau earned his high-school diploma. Then, after developing a keen interest in Vermont history, he stuck with the literacy program to help him read history books. Today, Durenleau serves on the board of VALUE -- Voice for Adult Literacy United for Education -- a national leadership organization that encourages older people to learn to read.
At his party, Durenleau unwrapped some presents from his friends: a field guide to wildflowers of the United States, a portable CD player, several books on tape, and a stationery set for writing letters home. They also collected some money so Durenleau can buy a new pair of sneakers. "So you can run twice as fast," joked one of his fellow students.
Despite these lighthearted moments, there was no concealing the many worried faces around the room; several women wept silently. Privately, a few of Durenleau's friends expressed anger and frustration that the military would send a 57-year-old into combat for 18 months. As one of them noted, if Durenleau were just a year older, he wouldn't be going to war at all.
Durenleau doesn't withhold his own fears about heading into a war zone. He knows that the rigors of combat can be grueling for men and women half his age, and he's concerned about coping with the heat. Moreover, he knows that the separation from his family will be particularly rough on his 6-year-old grandson Donovan.
Nevertheless, the staff sergeant beams with pride that he's attached to the first armored National Guard battalion in the country to be deployed for a combat mission. "I'm proud that they asked me to go," he says. "What else can I say? I didn't have no choice."
And like another old soldier who kept a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, Durenleau told his friends and colleagues, "I'll miss you all and keep you in mind. And I shall return."