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Tuesday, September 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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He fought age, girth, red tape and won right to defend U.S.

Seattle Times staff reporter

KENT NATIONAL GUARD ARMORY — Sgt. Darcy Richardson, the newest member of the 303rd Cavalry, knows how to fire an M-16 — he wielded one in Vietnam. He knows how to toss grenades and has experienced firsthand the stark reality of coming under enemy attack.

But donning a beret is something new, and so far he's doing it wrong. His tag is sticking out, "and you want to tilt it just so," says fellow Sgt. Christopher Haley, assisting in what has suddenly become a two-man operation.

How things have changed.

Last year at this time, Richardson was a 51-year-old veteran with a ponytail, high blood pressure and an appreciation of Budweiser that rivaled his love of country rides on his Harley-Davidson. He last served in the military in 1985, when soldiers wore caps, not berets.

But brimming with national pride and yearning for vengeance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Richardson was among thousands of aging veterans who dialed recruiters, hoping to re-enlist.

Most were politely turned away. Richardson, too, endured rejections from the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard and various reserves before finding the a sympathetic National Guard recruiter.

"I heard things like I was too old, way overweight," Richardson said. "Finally, this National Guard guy said, 'Well, there's a possibility.' That was all I needed to hear."

Now, after a year spent shedding 45 pounds, 20 blood-pressure points and obtaining the necessary age waivers from the military, Richardson is a soldier again — reliving his youth in the name of patriotism.

He attended his first drill with the 303rd on Saturday, four days before the anniversary of the catastrophe that inspired him to re-enlist.

"September 11th changed lots of people, and it certainly changed me," said Richardson, who lives in Mukilteo with his wife and two teenage daughters. "I'm a born-again kid."

National Guard Sgt. First Class Ryan Teichert wasn't surprised when he got Richardson's call. In the days after the terrorist attacks, he was inundated with calls from ex-soldiers volunteering to re-enlist.

Young people were another matter. Recruiters received plenty of calls after September but didn't see a rise in enlistments.

"A lot of these prior-service people had been there, they'd done it, and I don't think they were afraid of it," Teichert said. "Whereas a 17-year-old kid, it's the unknown, they're not sure what it's going to be like, and they're not as confident."

Though the National Guard is the most lenient of the services when it comes to age, Richard's case still presented problems. The National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., twice rejected his application for age waivers. He also failed his first physical because of high blood pressure. And at 235 pounds, he was overweight.

His doctor put him on a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. "I was a fried-food junkie," Richardson said. He also cut down on his beloved Budweiser and began a rigorous workout schedule. Every other day he ran five miles and did 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups. On alternate days, he hit the gym at the Everett Boeing plant, where he is a riveter.

With his weight down to a trim 190 pounds and his heart purring like a teenager's, Richardson scored a 277 out of 300 in the military's physical-fitness test, performing 63 push-ups and 45 sit-ups in under two minutes each, and running two miles in 13 minutes and 38 seconds.

"Which is incredible," Teichert said. "He did better than a lot of 18-year-olds when they enlist."

After another attempt, the Guard agreed to waive the age requirement.

In July, after months of waiting, Richardson held an enlistment party at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Everett. Relatives and friends from his motorcycle club — their bikes included — filled the hall as a band played. Then, in a ceremony capping their 10-month journey, Teichert cut Richardson's hair.

His first drill with the 303rd, a scout unit based in Puyallup, was a study in contrasts. The weapons were newer and better, the training now included computer simulators that didn't exist when Richardson left the military. And the average age of the unit was about early 30s, with only a handful of members who had ever known combat.

"Having people who've been in combat helps a lot," said Staff Sgt. Steve Mullins, who served in Somalia. "When you're out in the field training you've got guys who can say, this really happens."

Something else is different for Richardson. The soldiers in this unit are serving at a time when the military is a source of national pride. That wasn't the case when he volunteered for Vietnam.

"We never even got a parade."

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

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