For Guardsmen, part time no more

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After 11 years in the military, Rick Hughes was finally going to go to college. With only one year of service left, Hughes, his wife and their two kids planned to move from Xenia, Ohio, to Columbus, where Shannon Hughes would work while her husband went to school. But Sept. 11 and Hughes’ subsequent activation in the National Guard’s 1-148th Infantry changed their plans.

The guard told the Hughes family that his deployment could last as long as two years, so the couple sold their house in Ohio and Shannon moved with the kids to her parents’ home in New York.

“It was hard not to see him and it got to the point that the kids recognized that when they saw their father they knew it was only for four days,” said Shannon, 31. “My son used to ask, ‘Is Daddy mad at me?’ ”

Members of the National Guard and military reserves are used to serving only a few weeks a year, but now many of them are entering their second straight year of service. Since Sept. 11, 2001, many units have been mobilized to assist the active military, and many of their members have been sent overseas for months at a time. In September, President Bush extended service for the National Guard and reserves for at least another year, and the possibility of a war with Iraq could further extend their deployment.

“The possibility of a call-up is always looming,” said Master Sgt. Dean Roberts of the 514th Air Wing at McGuire Air Force Base, who is a detective with the New York Police Department in civilian life. “That’s our purpose — to be called up for contingencies.”

And with the war on terror and the possibility of a campaign in Iraq, the military is now relying heavily on these part-time soldiers.

More than 43,000 Army or Air Force National Guard troops are currently mobilized to provide assistance to the active duty military. That is down by about half from the days just after the Sept. 11 attacks, yet still an unprecedented number for recent times. In addition to the National Guard, 16,711 military reservists have also been called up.

The extended mobilizations came as a surprise to many of the families involved.

“We all know that it is a possibility but I don’t think I ever dreamed in a million years that I would be on active duty this long,” said Jeff Green, a member of the 117th Air Refueling Wing in Alabama. Green, who was posted in Afghanistan for a brief time earlier this year, knows he is one of the luckier servicemen — his home is close to the base where he is stationed so he can see his wife and 18-month-old daughter daily. However, “40-hour weeks are a thing of the past. Sixty-hour weeks are normal, so even when I’m home I am away from home.”

Drain on law enforcement
Like Green, many reservists and members of the National Guard work in civilian law enforcement, and the extended mobilizations are taxing police departments, fire departments and other civil service agencies across the country. In Hoover, Ala., where Green works, the National Guard and reserve mobilizations have cut the police force by about 10 percent.

“The uniformed officers are hit the hardest,” said Lt. Dave Carlington of the Hoover Police Department. “When you are down three or four officers, it really takes a toll.”

To make up for the missing men, police officers work on their off days and stay extra hours.

Military downsizing during the 1990s resulted in the transfer of servicepeople in sectors like engineering, intelligence and communications to the reserves and the National Guard. Now, the military is increasingly dependent on these units during times of conflict.

“Until recently, no one had expectations that deployments would be this long,” said Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information. “The military leaders continue to prepare to fight World War III even though it is not a World War III kind of world. Now that they are called on with increasing frequency — surprise — it’s a drain on the Guard.”

Financial hardship
In addition to the hardship on families, members of the National Guard and reserve who have been activated for long stretches face professional setbacks.

“It puts us behind the power curve,” Roberts said. “When we go back, there are things we have to relearn. When you are in the Guard and reserve, you have to be able to juggle two careers.”

Though employers are required by law to hold their positions, they are not obligated to pay the difference between their military salaries and civilian salaries. As a result, the soldiers and their families may have to get by on hundreds less a month.

However, even with the strain on their families and careers, there are few complaints from the members of the 108th Air Refueling Wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

“From a personal pride standpoint the benefits have been incredible,” said Tech Sgt. Felix Zamot. “I have missed out on two years of doing my job and maybe promotion opportunities, but doing what I have done will pay bigger dividends.”