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First Person: The soldiers next door

The military depends increasingly on reservists. They deserve support

Saturday, January 27, 2001

By Christopher Briem

There are times when the military operations going on around the world seem very distant from what is important in daily life back home. Often those operations involve our neighbors and relatives.

  Christopher Briem is a drilling Naval reservist and a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Friendship. 

Right now, elements of the 28th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard are already training in preparation of its scheduled deployment to Europe in October 2002, where it will take charge of the American sector in Bosnia. Division personnel from across Pennsylvania will receive presidential orders to be called to active duty and deploy for up to 270 days, leaving behind both their families and employers back home.

Here's what the post-Cold War world has meant to the reserves: They are needed not only when there is a major war, but also as part of the worldwide contingencies to which the United States is always committed.

The challenge facing the reserves is attracting and retaining the personnel needed to complete their missions. Many cannot find the time for both a civilian career and a reserve commitment. Personnel are finding it harder and harder to find time away from the demands of a booming local economy. It is more important than ever that the personnel serving in the guard and reserve do not need to forfeit their civilian careers as a result. If the United States is going to rely on reserve forces so heavily, the support of employers in accommodating the reserve commitments of their workers is crucial.

Ten years ago, the Gulf war necessitated the call-up of over 250,000 reservists, the largest activation of reserve personnel since Vietnam. The reliance on reserve forces has only increased since then. What was an unprecedented callup of reserves in 1990 is now actually commonplace.

Military operations in Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere have all included significant numbers of reserve personnel. Even when there is not a major contingency overseas, the 911th Air Wing of the Air Force Reserve based in Pittsburgh performs its refueling mission throughout the year and across the planet. For those who serve, "Weekend Warrior" is no longer an accurate description of reserve duty. It often extends well beyond the one weekend a month that's advertised.

Reservists serve in combat units and combat support units, and some have missions "behind the lines." All personnel who go into a theater of operations are put at risk. The 14 casualties among the Greensburg-based 14th Quartermaster Corps of the Army Reserve, a water purification unit, lost due to Scud attacks in Saudi Arabia, are testimony to the danger faced by all who serve. Their losses alone were almost 10 percent of the battle deaths in the entire conflict; this was the highest casualty rate of any unit deployed to the theater of operations.

Recruiting and retention in the reserves is as hard as it is for the active-duty services these days. The growing demands on people's time and energy leave less time for other activities. When faced with the choice between ever-increasing overtime and continued participation in the reserves, many have no choice but to stop drilling. Reserve units need people - the same people who are also needed by their civilian employers.

The military has never been able to compete one-for-one with the wages that can be received in the civilian world. This is as true in the reserves, where many could make greater pay with a part-time job or some extra overtime compared to the drill pay they receive for their weekend service each month. Most serve for reasons that go beyond pay and can forgo the extra pay that the reserves may cost them. Often, time is the resource that can not be increased. If employers are not flexible enough to allow for the time commitments that reservists need, then often they have no choice but to end their reserve service.

Being a reservist has certain responsibilities. Normally, the time commitment requires a weekend a month in addition to two weeks of active duty per year. Two days in a month is at a minimum an inconvenience, but for many who work shift hours or whose employers require significant overtime, it is difficult to find the time to show up for drill each month. It is not uncommon for a reservist to be working full time, working overtime when needed, and going to school at night in addition to drilling one weekend per month. Those who do all of the above, and even raise families as well, are not atypical among today's reservists.

The need for employer support for the Guard and the reserve has never been more important.

It may be hard to give an employee the time he or she needs for reserve duty. If the mission of the American military is to be met by reservists, employers will have to shoulder some of the hardship this entails. Often there is limited flexibility in the dates and times a reservist is needed for drills or active duty.

There will always be individuals willing to make the sacrifices that duty requires. The question for the future will be whether business owners and managers will match that commitment.

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