BANGOR, Maine — When airmen Mark Johnson and Daniel Shunk went to basic training they were surrounded by people half their age.
“I was old enough to be their father,” said Johnson, who was 38 when he joined the Maine Air National Guard last year and was shipped away to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training.
“I was lying in the bunk thinking, ‘What have I got myself into?’” he recalled about his first night in uniform.
“I immediately got the nickname ‘Papa Shunk’” at basic training, said Shunk, who became a soldier at the age of 35.
Johnson and Shunk both were able to join the Air National Guard after its age limit increased in mid-2009 from 34 to 40.
Both said they felt a calling to serve in the military — to serve their country — as young men, but life pulled them a different direction.
When the age limit was changed, they both decided it was now or never.
“I truly have wanted to serve since high school, really, to give back,” Shunk said. “I always wanted to step up and serve.”
Johnson said he feels like “everybody should do their part,” and that included him.
Master Sgt. John Cyr, a Maine Air Guard recruiting supervisor, said the number of older recruits walking through his door is still fairly low but is increasing.
“It’s not completely rare, but it’s becoming more common,” he said. “We’re having more and more people over 30.”
The benefits of joining the Maine Air Guard are that you’re in the military serving your country and are stationed right here in Bangor serving with the 101st Air Refueling Wing, Cyr said, adding “most people stay in until they retire.”
There are other Air Guard units in Augusta and South Portland.
Johnson, who is from Hampden and works for Seacoast Security Alarm Co., finished basic training last summer and was sent directly to technical school. He returned to Maine able to work on the massive generators used by the MAINEics.
The weekend warrior was gone from his family, which includes two daughters, for a total of five months.
“My girls — I missed them the most,” said Johnson, who added another reason he joined up is because the mother of his girls also is a part of the wing. “I saw how well she’s enjoyed it and how they’ve treated her.”
Shunk, who is married with five young children and lives in Searsport, joined on May 11, 2010, and was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. As a citizen soldier he works in information security and is a public speaker teaching Christian apologetics when not in uniform.
Fellow Air Guard recruits, who mostly were under age 20, at first worried Shunk might drag the group down during basic training, but they learned quickly he was prepared physically and mentally.
“They respected the fact we were pulling our load,” he said.
The drill sergeants also used Shunk and Johnson as examples to get the other soldiers to work harder.
“They didn’t want an old man to beat them,” Shunk said.
Both Shunk and Johnson have about a year of service under their belts and have reached the rank of Airman First Class. Both are encouraging others to jump on board.
“It’s a great part-time job,” Johnson said. “You get to travel the world and get paid for it. I’ve already been to Hawaii and they tell me it only gets better.”
The camaraderie with fellow airmen on base is something akin to family, Shunk said.
Maj. Mark Champagne, public affairs officer for the 101st, said all Air National Guard airmen first class are treated the same and “stand shoulder to shoulder with the 18-year-olds” until they demonstrate skills that set them apart.
The older airmen, with their life experience, seem to end up as leaders or mentors, he said.
“They’re [succeeding] out there,” Cyr said. “They’re doing very well. They have the younger rank, but they are lower-ranked leaders.”
For Johnson and Shunk, service is now more than just a word. It is a lifestyle.
“You know you’re making a difference in the big picture,” Shunk said. “It matters, and there is satisfaction in that.”