Face of Defense: Solider, 51, Completes Basic Combat Training

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Army Sgt. San­dra Coast grad­u­at­ed from Basic Com­bat Train­ing here Feb. 17, offi­cial­ly begin­ning her Army career at 51 years old.

Army Sgt. San­dra Coast aims her M16 rifle dur­ing the final days of her basic com­bat train­ing at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. U.S. Army pho­to by Melis­sa K. Buck­ley
Click to enlarge

The aver­age age for an Army Reserve recruit is about 23, mak­ing Coast one of the old­est peo­ple to go through basic com­bat train­ing, U.S. Army Recruit­ing Com­mand offi­cials said. “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 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, she explained. 

For as long as she can remem­ber, Coast said, 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,” she said. “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. 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 as her train­ing neared its end. “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,” she said. “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’s 10-week jour­ney from civil­ian to sol­dier was spent in Com­pa­ny B, 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 10th Infantry Reg­i­ment, 3rd Chem­i­cal Brigade. Army 1st Sgt. John Byars, her first sergeant, said his first reac­tion when he heard he had a 51-year-old head­ed his way was “Wow, that’s strange.” Now, Byars has a new perception. 

“I was impressed, because she can do every­thing the younger sol­diers do,” he 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 test. 

“I am still kind of blown away by that,” she said. “I even ran faster than all but one female.” 

The fit­ness test 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 roommates. 

“Every­thing about basic train­ing is pret­ty tough, but liv­ing with more than 30 teenage females is one of the hard­est things,” she said. But despite the age gap, she added, she was treat­ed 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. 

Coast agreed. 

“They treat me as an equal,” she said. “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.” 

Coast recalled an inci­dent 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,’ ” she said. “I told him I would pay for his coun­sel­ing when we were done. I was slap­ping him — he final­ly slapped me.” 

As her grad­u­a­tion approached, she said the thing she was look­ing for­ward to the most was 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. 

Marine Corps 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,” he said. “I think she is hard­core. I hope when I get old­er I am still active and do all kinds of cool stuff.” 

The Marine’s moth­er said she made it through basic train­ing because of the sup­port she received from fam­i­ly, friends and even outsiders. 

“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,” she con­tin­ued. “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.” 

Coast said she is delight­ed to have reached the end of her basic train­ing adven­ture, and that she’s thank­ful for all of the new expe­ri­ences it provided. 

“This has been very chal­leng­ing,” she said before her grad­u­a­tion. “It makes me real­ize that I can do all of this. I got to do some real­ly fun things. After the rap­pelling tow­er, I decid­ed to start rock climb­ing when I get out of basic training.” 

Coast added that she also is 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. But on the plus side, she said, 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,” Coast said. “So I got attached to a vir­tu­al unit. Every­thing I do will be by the Inter­net and phone.” 

Basic com­bat train­ing left her with a new respect for com­bat sol­diers and a new respect for her­self, Coast said. 

“Their gear is heavy, and they are doing this con­stant­ly,” she not­ed. “We have some real­ly awe­some troops out there. I am 51 years old, and I can do this.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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