Many Reserve and Guard Face Job Problems After Discharge from Active Duty
Jobs don’t always wait for Guards, reservists: Citizen soldiers find duty in Iraq can dent families’ finances When Steve Pittman Jr. finally returned to California from Iraq late in December, he was thinking about getting back to two things. One was his girlfriend. The other was his truck. Not necessarily in that order.
One thing that didn’t worry him was his job at a lube shop, where he worked until he was activated by his California National Guard unit. But once he was in Oxnard (Ventura County), employment suddenly moved to the top of the list.
“They had already replaced me,” he said. Pittman said his boss explained politely that business had boomed in Pittman’s absence, and while the shop might have an opening in a few weeks, he was keeping Pittman’s replacement on the job.
“That was understandable,” Pittman said. But it still left him without a job as his bank balance — fat from combat pay and months on a base with little to buy — rapidly thinned out.
Pittman’s experience is being repeated across the nation as members of the National Guard and Reserve — mobilized in numbers and for a duration not seen in 60 years, return from tours of duty in Iraq to the civilian workforce.
Older, further along in their careers and often with larger families than their active-duty peers, members of the National Guard and Reserve, experts say, have been especially affected by the demands of lengthy — and in some cases repeated — deployments to Iraq.
And while Pittman experienced an extreme scenario, thousands of soldiers are returning home and finding a range of difficulties — from paperwork hassles to losing their homes and businesses — as they try to fit back into civilian life. And officials are scrambling to solve that problem before tens of thousands more troops come home.
“This just hasn’t happened since World War II, and in World War II, the whole country was mobilized in effect, so this didn’t happen,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe Jr., former adjutant general of the California National Guard. “It is something that no one is prepared to deal with in an effective way.”
More than 412,000 Guard and reservists have been called up nationwide since Sept. 11, 2001, and 185,432 remain on active duty. And officials in the military, government and volunteer organizations whose job it is to assist returning troops say that when difficulties occur, the system works pretty well.
While the size of the problem is new, the issues around it are not — Monroe’s own son, a National Guard captain, lost his job while mobilized for Operation Noble Eagle, the call-up of reservists for domestic duty after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Helping his son brought Monroe into close contact with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a volunteer organization working to alleviate hardships that military service can cause for employers and employees alike.
An ombudsmen for the support organization contacted Monroe’s son’s employer with a gentle reminder that federal law — the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act — requires that, with few exceptions, military service members are entitled to their civilian jobs after deployment, along with the seniority, status and pay they would have had if they had stayed at home.
With surprising speed, Monroe’s son was back at work, and today the general, who left the Guard Adjutant General’s office last year, is California vice chairman of Employer Support.
Most cases brought to the organization have similarly happy endings, said John Woolley, Northern California vice chairman of the group.
Woolley’s volunteer position has turned into a more or less full-time job in the past year and a half, as complaints from service members have spiked. But more than 80 percent of the complaints are resolved with a friendly phone call and letter to the employer explaining the law, he said.
Cases that can’t be resolved might be sent to the Department of Labor for action and even to the Department of Justice, which can file a lawsuit.
The departments of Defense, Labor and Justice track such cases differently, and some have been revamping their procedures since the Iraq war began, making it tricky to know the scale of the problem. Employer Support reported that since April, it has received 6,462 queries, of which 5,739 have been successfully mediated between reservist and employer.
Department of Labor officials said they opened fewer than 1,500 cases in fiscal year 2004 — an increase over the two previous years, but still less than the number opened after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And the Department of Justice reported it has only 16 open investigations this fiscal year.
Still, Woolley said he was worried about the vast demobilization down the road.
“When the tides go out, that’s not a problem,” he said. “But when the tide comes back in — that’s a problem.”
Woolley and others in the group are working hard to increase awareness of the law not only among employers, through a range of award programs and outreach activities, but also among service members, through pre- and post- deployment briefings.
Even then, the system can’t help some troops — including Pittman, whose California job hunt went poorly, in large part because he didn’t have the right paperwork allowing him to apply the welding skills he learned in Iraq to a job in the state.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said, “especially when I can out-weld about half of the damn applicants.”
The Department of Labor is looking at ways to make it easier for returning veterans to get state certifications for the kinds of work they do in the military, as well as to help returning service members translate their military experience into civilian resume material. The department has launched a nationwide campaign encouraging employers to hire veterans, and plans to issue guidelines helping employers understand and obey the law.
“We find that in most cases the problems occur because the employer did not understand what the law requires,” said Frederico Juarbe Jr., assistant secretary of labor for veterans employment and training, speaking in San Jose last week at the first West Coast meeting of the White House’s year-old National Hire Veterans Committee.
But all those services — such as the employment rights law — are useless if the members fail to use them, and officials can’t know how many returning troops don’t know the law or are too proud to try.
Pittman, for one, decided not to file a complaint and instead headed to Indiana to live with his parents.
“Call it my upbringing, but I tend not to bitch,” the 25-year-old said. “Probably the most valuable thing my dad ever gave me was a work ethic. I’ve never been without a job for long.”
Not every employment issue faced by mobilized Guard members and reservists can be addressed. One is the issue of pay differential for civilian and military jobs.
“There is definitely a problem. The problem is particularly significant for people who make a lot of money in civilian life, and then make a lot less when they go on active duty,” said retired Army Reserve Col. Alfred Diaz, past national vice president of the Reserve Officers Association. “Those people are the ones likely to lose all their savings, and maybe even their houses.”
Scott Hellesto, a 35-year-old paramedic and firefighter, was activated as a Navy corpsman, causing his pay to drop from more than $70,000 to less than $50,000. His wife ended up on the state Women, Infants and Children support program and had to move with their three children into a smaller home in Antioch.
“We had a nice rental house, and I had to put my family in a shoe-box apartment,” he said. “This place was a dive. … Our car got broken into twice, our tires got popped on our car.”
Six months after he returned, Hellesto and his wife were able to buy a new home in time for the birth of their fourth child. But while he does not regret military service — “If they call me back today, I’d go,” he said — he also says there should be a way to serve without so much sacrifice.
“When you sign up for the military, you know there’s no such thing as a rich man in the military,” he said. “(But) who’s to say that my time in the military is any less valuable than my time at the firehouse?”
The result isn’t only a strain on the individual, it’s a strain on the military when that individual gets fed up and quits, Diaz said.
“It’s affecting National Guard recruiting in particular,” he said. “Reserve recruiting is going to be affected as well, and retention is going to be affected.”
Diaz went to Washington last week to support a bill introduced by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, which would require federal employers to continue paying activated employees the difference between their civilian and military wages, and would offer tax credits to civilian employers who voluntarily do the same.
Small business owners
Officials haven’t quite figured out how to solve the problems of another category of returnees — the self-employed and small business owners, who make up an estimated 7 percent of Guard members and reservists, according to a 2003 Department of Defense study.
National Guard Staff Sgt. Ken Weichert, 38, of San Francisco operates START Fitness, a boot-camp-style fitness and self-defense course for civilians. For almost seven years, the former Army drill instructor’s one-weekend-a- month, two-weeks-a-year National Guard training schedule caused no problems.
But when his military intelligence battalion was activated in February 2003 with just a few days’ notice, he figured he was out of business. “I gave power of attorney over to my wife, and I said shut it down,” he said.
“They said it was going to be four months. It turned out to be 13. … Any ready reservist who’s activated that owns his own business is not protected by anything,” he said. “If their business goes under, their business goes under.”
As it turned out, Weichert’s wife, Stephanie — they married the day before he deployed — was more resourceful than he’d realized. Weichert returned to discover that she had gotten her own instructor certification, hired some of his black-belt-qualified friends and managed to keep 80 percent of his membership. Weichert feels he dodged a bullet, thanks to the support of his wife.
“There are a lot of business owners — a lot more than I thought there were. Insurance salesmen, real estate brokers,” he said. “If they’re not there, their commissions gravely suffer and they go down to pennies from hundreds.”
“Nobody knows the scale of the problem,” said William Elmore, associate administrator of the Office of Veterans Business Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration, the main source of assistance for people like Weichert. “Our estimate is somewhere in the range of 30,000 small business owners have been activated.”
Elmore said the range of programs available to returning troops like Weichert is significant and growing, with new outreach centers — including one in Sacramento — dedicated to getting those resources to returning troops.
Both Elmore and Woolley, of Employer Support, said the government could do more to directly assist small-business owners.
“They’re not gone forever. They’re gone for a year, maybe less than that, ” he said. “I think the United States of America could keep a small business going for a year.”
Veterans’ job rights
For more information on resources available to returning troops, visit the following Web sites:
Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve: www.esgr.org/
SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development: www.sba.gov/vets/
President’s National Hire Veterans Committee: www.hirevetsfirst.gov/
U.S. Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service: www.dol.gov/vets/
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at email@example.com