February 22, 2012
By Melissa K Buckley
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Sgt. Sandra Coast graduated from Basic Combat Training on Fort Leonard Wood, officially beginning her Army career – at 51 years old.
According to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, the average age for an Army Reserve recruit is about 23, making Coast one of the oldest people to go through Basic Combat Training.
“Everybody in the world thinks I am a total nutcase,” Coast said. “I just want to support our troops. I love all of them.”
From 1982 to 1993, Coast devoted her life to the U.S. Navy. She gave up her lifestyle as a Sailor to raise her son, Jeff, who ironically led her back to the military she left behind years ago.
“When Jeff graduated high school, he joined the Marine Corps. When I was at the recruiter’s office with my son, I walked into the Army recruiting office and said ‘I want to join,'” Coast said.
Her previous years of military service allowed her to join the Army Reserve well past the age someone without prior service could join.
For as long as she can remember she has had a special place in her heart for troops and a hunger to serve.
“I have a friend in the Navy that was emailing me from Afghanistan. It’s his third combat tour in seven years. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just had this overwhelming desire to give back to the military somehow. I was doing the same job day after day after day. I can’t live my life that way,” Coast said. “There is more to life than this, so I ended up in basic training.”
She was stunned to learn that as a paralegal specialist she would have to go back to basic training — this time, Army-style.
“I wasn’t quite expecting to be running around with an M16 and all of this gear,” Coast said. “This is nothing even remotely similar to being a Sailor. I was blown away by the total difference of it. We carried M16s during Navy Boot Camp, but we never shot them. Here we are shooting several times a week. Shooting this weapon with all of the gear on takes a toll on me.”
Coast started preparing for Basic Combat Training months prior to stepping foot on Fort Leonard Wood.
“Before the recruiters would even talk to me I had to lose 30 pounds. I went from sitting at home every night eating ice cream to exercising and watching what I ate. I also started getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to exercise and tried to go to bed early at night. I knew I needed every advantage I could have to get through this,” Coast said.
Her 10-week journey from civilian to Soldier was spent in Company B, 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Chemical Brigade. Her first sergeant said when he first heard he had a 51-year-old headed his way he was perplexed, “Wow, that’s strange,” he said.
Now, 1st Sgt. John Byars has a new perception of his elders.
“I was impressed because she can do everything the younger Soldiers do,” Byars said. “She never expected us to feel sorry for her. She even got one of the highest Army Physical Fitness Test scores in the company. She is a prime example that age is just a number. She ran faster than Soldiers young enough to be her kids.”
Coast even amazed herself when she came in second place during the PT test.
“I am still kind of blown away by that. I even ran faster than all but one female,” Coast said.
The APFT may have been a breeze for Coast, but she said one of the hardest things for her to adjust to was the divide in life stages between her and her fellow roommates.
“Everything about basic training is pretty tough, but living with more than 30 teenage females is one of the hardest things,” Coast said.
Despite the age gap, Byars said Coast was treated just like every other Soldier in training.
“We don’t treat her any different, and we don’t see the privates treat her any different,” Byars said.
“They treat me as an equal. The males especially have the utmost respect. They will do little things that they probably aren’t supposed to do, like give me their seat on the bus and hold the doors for me. It’s the little things that mean so much,” she said.
Although, Coast recalls an instance during hand-to-hand combat training that was particularly tough for one of her battle buddies.
“We had to slap each other in the face. The poor guy that was up against me said ‘I cannot do this. I cannot slap her.’ I told him I would pay for his counseling when we were done. I was slapping him — he finally slapped me,” Coast said.
The thing Coast is looking forward to the most today is wrapping her arms around her son.
“I am thrilled to wear the title of sergeant in the U.S. Army, but the title that is also very near and dear to my heart is Marine mom. You can’t beat that. I feel totally blessed,” Coast said.
Pfc. Jeff Coast didn’t think his mother was serious when she expressed interest in joining the Army, but recently he started seeing a side of her that was new to him.
“She is doing what most people her age would consider crazy,” Jeff said. “I think she is hardcore. I hope when I get older I am still active and do all kinds of cool stuff.”
Sgt. Sandra Coast feels like she made it through basic training because of the support family, friends and even outsiders expressed to her.
“It blows my mind that I am able to accomplish this,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my Marine mom friends. I get more mail from them than anybody. That support keeps me going. They are constantly cheering me on. Even random people around here will tell me they are cheering for me.”
“At the dining facility the workers walk up and tell me they are cheering for me,” Coast said. “I cry pretty much every day. Not a lot, because it’s not an Army thing to do I know, but it’s mind boggling to me how supportive strangers can be.”
She is delighted to be at the end of her basic training adventure, and thankful for all of the new experiences she had.
“This has been very challenging. It makes me realize that I can do all of this. I got to do some really fun things. After the repelling tower, I decided to start rock climbing when I get out of basic training,” Coast said.
Coast is also looking forward to her life in the Army Reserve. She said she enlisted hoping to work directly with active-duty troops, but instead was attached to a reserve unit. On the plus side, she will be able to work near her son’s reserve unit.
“I wanted to go active duty, but they are not taking people as old as me for active duty. So, I got attached to a virtual unit. Everything I do will be by the Internet and phone,” Coast said.
Being in Army Basic Combat Training left Coast with a new respect for combat Soldiers — and a new respect for herself.
“Their gear is heavy and they are doing this constantly. We have some really awesome troops out there,” Coast said. “I am 51-years-old, and I can do this.”