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by Kevin Coupe

Old soldiers never die. And sometimes, they even resist fading away.

There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day that was fascinating, not just because of the particulars of the story, but because it offered a broader lesson about the importance of experience in any organization.

The article was about Staff Sgt. Don Nicholas, who, at 59, “is the oldest of the 6,000 soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division in eastern Afghanistan ... And he is probably one of the very few Vietnam vets now back for more in Afghanistan. He's certainly the only one who saw first-hand the ugly end of that war from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.”

Nicholas joined the Marines in 1971. His story is impressive, and can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Suffice it to say that Nicholas is such a dedicated soldier that even after he left the Corps in 1978 to go to college and eventually become a podiatrist, he kept hoping to get back in. The Marines kept saying no, but in 2004, the US Army Reserves said yes. And he went back in.

“He joined the Army's psychological-operations branch because there he had a good chance of going to war,” the Journal writes. “ And war he got. He spent his first Afghanistan tour, in 2005, in such infamous valleys as the Korengal and Pech. He had shuttered his podiatric practice, so after his tour he made a living from house calls until the Army accepted his request to deploy again. This time he spent 11 months north of Baghdad.

“Soon after he got home, he put his hand up one more time. In March he arrived in Kunar Province, along the Pakistan border, for a year.”

Nicholas is apparently not someone who takes “no” for an answer. As the Journal writes, “Next July, Sgt. Nicholas turns 60, and the Army will tell him that he can't go to war anymore, one of the few things he finds truly frightening. He's trying to get a quick commission as an officer; that would allow him to join the medical corps, which has a higher retirement age.”

Beyond the fact that any nation should feel blessed to have people like Nicholas doing this kind of work and feeling this kind of commitment - so that the rest of us don’t have to - there’s also a great lesson here about the importance of experience, institutional memory, and, yes, age.

There is a temptation in hard times to offer early retirement to the people with experience, because they also tend to be the people with high salaries. But this is not always a good idea. Experience can be a good thing, and the people who have it may feel a commitment to the business that younger folks may lack. It’s not always the case, but often it is.

Experience can be an Eye-Opener.
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