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Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Marines didn't know she was 85

October 14th, 2005 7:31 pm

By Robert L. Jamieson Jr. / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Marines are looking for recruits to join the few and the proud.

This explains the one-page letter that arrived last month in Barbara Mercer's Seattle mailbox.

"Now is the time to put your unique language skills to the test as a member of the United States Marine Corps," wrote Brig. Gen. W.E. Gaskin.

"Your command of the Arabic language will be invaluable. ... We'll push your physical and mental limits beyond anything you've ever known."

Mercer speaks English and converses in French, albeit with an American accent as thick as crème brûlée.

"But Arabic?" she chuckles. "I don't even speak a word of that."

Mercer is certainly not game for physical duress to forge what the letter refers to as "a bond that cannot be broken."

She might end up breaking a bone or two. "I'm 85 years old," Mercer explains.

The Capitol Hill resident was "distressed" about why the military would be looking for recruits among octogenarians.

She fired off a letter to military brass.

"Dear General Gaskin," she began, "Recently I received a copy of your obviously mass produced letter. ..."

The general hasn't replied.

The whole episode has got me thinking. Are the Marines trying to reach out and hug senior citizens to balance out their zealous embrace of high school kids?

Perhaps it is equal opportunity loving, military style.

"Someone who's 80 years old? That doesn't fit our age window," Master Sgt. James Edwards, a recruiting command spokesman, tells me from his office in Virginia. "It's overage."

The target audience for fresh Marines typically is someone who is male and between the ages of 17 and 24.

In September, the Marines used a mass mailing to try to expand its reach to Arabic-speaking prospects between 17 and 29.

Those recruits could bolster military communications in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Such strategy may look good on paper.

But stuff happens.

Addresses were supposed to be culled from a mailing list with about 108,000 names.

A subcontractor of JWT, an ad agency the Marines use, failed to eliminate names without a verified birth date.

That's thousands upon thousands of names.

Some letter recipients were senior citizens. Other recipients didn't know a word of Arabic.

Why non-Arabic speakers received the letters remains anyone's guess.

Marine Corps recruiters say they "regret the errors" and apologize for any inconveniences.

A 75-year-old Texas man was so excited to get a letter that he rushed out to get marching orders.

Military officials had to gently turn the man away.

Mercer was miffed from the moment she opened her letter.

In her reply to the Marines, she didn't hold back. She said she knew why the military is having a hard time attracting recruits.

"The reason," Mercer wrote, "is perfectly obvious: Young Americans don't want any part of current imperial U.S. wars in the Middle East, conflicts which are illegal and immoral, and constitute gross violations of our democratic principles."

Critics of Mercer's perspective may think, what does she know? Has she even seen battlefield bravery or bloodshed up close?

It turns out she has.

During World War II, Mercer volunteered to serve as an Air Corps flight nurse.

In 1945, she left the service as a first lieutenant.

"I became a pacifist," she tells me. "Bringing the wounded home I saw the results of war and felt, never again."

Mercer's 84-year-old husband, Lyle, a former Army paratrooper, shares his wife's way of thinking.

They have protested every war since World War II.

The couple spent the day before their 60th wedding anniversary last month taking part in the big peace gathering at Westlake Center.

They share a military background.

They share a pro-peace point of view.

One thing they don't share is having received a letter from the Marines. Mercer's husband didn't get one bearing his name, which is just as well.

It would have meant one more piece of junk mail to toss.

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