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Former Janesville autoworker, 41, could be heading to Afghanistan

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
February 3, 2012
— Troy Eichelt was 237 pounds and 41 years old when he entered Army basic training last spring.

He dropped the excess weight and now is a proud member of the Wisconsin National Guard who has volunteered to serve his country in Afghanistan.


He has been trained to deal with roadside bombs, the "improvised explosive devices" that have killed and maimed so many American GIs in the recent Middle East wars.


All that happened in the past six months.


Eichelt has come a long way from Janesville's General Motors plant.


Eichelt was the third generation of his family to work at GM. He had gotten a job at Lear Seating in 1991 and hired on at GM in 1997, he said.


He worked in various production jobs at GM, including paint repair, which was easy duty, he said.


Eichelt took the buyout when the plant closed. But finding work was harder than he expected.


He became a "99'er," a person who used up his full 99 weeks of Unemployment Compensation.


Without work or prospects, he moved to Hudson, where he hoped job opportunities would be more plentiful.


Still no luck.


He was divorced with two teenage daughters who were talking about going to college, he said. He didn't want to have to tell them they couldn't go.


A nephew, Robby Litzer, formerly of Janesville, is a sergeant with the National Guard in Rhinelander. Litzer encouraged his uncle Troy to join the Guard.


"I was pressured by my own personal responsibilities with child support and everything else, and the military just seemed like the right way to go," Eichelt said.


The Army now won't take someone without a high school diploma, but a year ago, a General Educational Development diploma would have been OK. The former Craig High School student had neither.


So he studied and passed the GED test on the day he was to swear in, April 29, 2011.


"I guess you could say I snuck in under all the old rules," he said.


The Army was on the verge of changing another requirement. The maximum age for enlistment had been 42. The Army was about to lower it to 35, Eichelt said.


A colonel in Madison interviewed Eichelt and apparently was impressed. The colonel pushed his paperwork through so he could beat the deadline.


His family didn't think he'd make it, he said.


His recruiter didn't think he'd make it.


Even his nephew had his doubts.


Eichelt flew to St. Louis on July 18 and continued to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.


The drill sergeants immediately picked out—and picked on—the overweight man who was far older than anyone else who stepped off the bus.


"The name 'old man' stuck with me, with the drill sergeants and the company commander," Eichelt said.


The company commander was 36.


Basic training was 10 weeks, "the hardest thing I ever did."


The Army has no trouble filling its ranks these days, Eichelt said, so they were letting recruits drop out. He


wasn't sure in the first three weeks that he could make it.


"Then they start building you back up," he said. "You get confident in yourself, and you think there's nothing you can't do."


He lost 47 pounds, thanks to the rigorous physical training and the Army's attention to his calorie intake.


His first time in the two-mile run was 22 minutes. He needed to make 18:30 to graduate. His final time was 15:30.


About two weeks in, he was named squad leader. Then he was put in charge of the entire platoon.


"Apparently, they saw leadership ability in me that I didn't know I had," he said.


Recruits were having trouble following orders, he said. They just weren't used to it. Some were out of foster homes, some from big-city streets.


"They don't want to do anything and just want everything handed to them," he said.


His platoon was rated the worst in physical education and shooting. He had to get the recruits to buy into the program. They did, and by the end of the 10 weeks, they were rated the top platoon, he said.


"I take only a little bit of that credit," he said. "It was their hard work that got us there."


A final hurdle before graduation was a 12-mile march with a 90-pound pack and battle gear. It had to be done in less than three hours, and that was the toughest of his days in basic.


He was named the top soldier in his company, the honor presented in front of the graduating class.


"It was the biggest accomplishment of my life, other than my children, and then just to say you serve your country is a huge honor," he said. "I mean, people come up and thank you, which is a big deal."


Eichelt completed five more weeks of advanced training, learning to become a member of a sapper unit, a combat engineer.


He learned about using bomb-sniffing vehicles with ground-penetrating radar and C-4 explosive to blow up the IEDs.


Graduation left Eichelt with a part-time job in the Guard. He looked for a full-time Guard job, but the state has imposed a hiring freeze, he said. That's one reason he volunteered for Afghanistan. Combat pay and the fact that the pay is not taxed while he's deployed were added inducements, he said.


He's waiting for word of placement in a unit from another state that is preparing to go overseas.


"Even my sister says, 'You're crazy,'" he said.


But he loves the Army, he said, and he has invested so much.


"I bought into the whole program. … I enjoy the structure."


He's even considering entering active duty after his deployment.


Mary Dull, Eichelt's aunt and also a former GM worker, said the Army has done wonders for her nephew. He seems more mature.


"I think he's come out a better person for doing it," Dull said. "We're all very proud of him."


Dull said Afghanistan is "a little scary," but she understands why he's going: "The few people I know that got jobs recently, they don't pay well. A lot don't have insurance. It's pretty sad."


For now, Eichelt is his nephew's supply clerk.


"I used to change his diapers," Eichelt said. "Now, he's my boss."


Eichelt is fine with that.


He acknowledges his is a feel-good story. Some people he knew lost their homes in the Great Recession and still are looking for work.


He hopes his story gives someone some hope.



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