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Soldiers' return to work not business as usual

Lt. Col. George Abbott of the Washington National Guard spends much of his time these days dodging sniper bullets and explosives while running supply convoys out of Camp Anaconda, a U.S. military outpost about 45 miles north of Baghdad.
/ Source: Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)

Lt. Col. George Abbott of the Washington National Guard spends much of his time these days dodging sniper bullets and explosives while running supply convoys out of Camp Anaconda, a U.S. military outpost about 45 miles north of Baghdad.

But in a few short months, the battalion commander is due to return to his quiet civilian job making phone calls and shuffling papers as an underwriter at Safeco Corp. in Redmond, Wash. There, the biggest risk he'll face each day is falling down the stairs — or getting a paper cut.

Abbott says he welcomes the return to safety but is wary of the jolt he'll experience in returning to predictable workplace routines after his life-and-death experiences in Iraq.

“On a convoy you have three or four hours of speeding along, and everything you see could be something that could kill you,” said Abbott, who is home on temporary leave but returns to Iraq Nov. 10. “Very few decisions that I'm going to make at Safeco are going to affect hundreds of people and possibly save lives.”

Abbott is one of more than 3,200 members of the Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade Combat Team scheduled to come home in February and March as part of a major troop rotation in Iraq. The soldiers, who make up Washington's largest mobilization of National Guard forces since World War II, will be returning en masse to the jobs and careers they left behind.

Worlds apart
For many, it will be a surprisingly tough transition. Soldiers who have spent much of the past year in dusty, desert conditions, battling insurgents, living on adrenaline, and going for weeks without a shower, will suddenly be thrust back into a sedate office environment and be expected to blend in.

Hundreds of Washington Guard and reserve troops have already been trickling back from the war zone, and their experiences returning to work provide a taste of what's to come. While many get a hero's welcome from their employers, they often struggle with post-traumatic stress and must grapple to catch up on all the developments they missed while overseas.

Mark Peters, a construction manager for The Boeing Co., is part of a Coast Guard reserve unit that had several deployments after Sept. 11, including to the Persian Gulf during the Iraq invasion. After returning to his Boeing job in August, he got into a confrontation with a colleague who peered over his shoulder and startled him.

“I said, ‘You need to back off. I'm afraid I'm going to do something and hurt you because you caught me off guard,’ ” Peters said. “Somebody comes up behind me and comes over my shoulder — I'm in a position to defend myself. That's what we train for.”

Peters also struggled with boredom and said many of his office responsibilities seemed trivial after serving in the war zone.

“I remember sitting in my first meeting when I got back. It had something to do with paperwork. They were getting very upset about it. I remember sitting back against the wall and thinking, ‘Is that what you get upset about? This is ridiculous,’ ” Peters said. “That's a large part of the psychological change — your perspective is entirely different.”

Washington has an 8,600-strong Army and Air National Guard force. About 3,325 of those are currently deployed overseas, most of them in Iraq. The biggest unit by far is the 81st Brigade Combat Team, with 3,200 members. That group is due to return home early next year, barring any last-minute extensions. A special forces unit, a transportation company, and an engineer battalion, totaling 350 people, have already returned home.

Back to work
Under 1994 federal law, guardsmen and reservists deployed for up to five years have the right to return to their original jobs — or positions closely approximating their original jobs — when they come home. Troops who serve more than 180 days can take up to 90 days off before going back to work, and injured troops can take up to two years. They are entitled to continued pension benefits as if there had never been a break in employment.

While the 1994 law strengthened protections for returning troops, disputes can arise over secondary issues, like missed promotions and bonuses and accrued vacation time. These issues tend to crop up three to six months after the returning troops resume their old jobs, said Bryon Burgess, executive director of the Washington Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a federally funded program that mediates soldier complaints against employers.

“After a few months back, people will find out things they didn't know. Everybody says, ‘Yea, yea, welcome back,’ but they find out they're being treated differently. They find out everybody else got promoted, but I didn't,” Burgess said.

Nationwide, some 438,000 troops have been mobilized since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More than 169,000 remain on active duty, while 268,815 have been demobilized, according to the Defense Department. By comparison, 265,000 troops served in the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, in 1990-91.

The number of soldier complaints about employers has soared nationwide to more than 3,500 since Sept. 11, though military officials say the increase is primarily due to the higher number of Guard members and reservists serving today. They also point out that the rate of complaints is lower than it was during Desert Storm.

Here in Washington, the ESGR office fields about 20 complaints per month, Burgess said. So far this year, the office has sent 30 cases it was unable to resolve to the Department of Labor for further review. Those numbers could jump substantially, however, when the large 81st Brigade returns home.

Ann Kunzelman, coordinator with the Washington National Guard Family Support Group at Camp Murray, said Guard members who work for small businesses tend to have the most trouble when it comes to re-entering the work force.

“History says that large companies tend to be more supportive than small companies because a large company has a pool of people that they can pull in to take care of that person's job. If you work in a 10-person company and you're activated for 16 months, they're going to have to hire someone to replace you,” Kunzelman said.

Sgt. Daniel Black, a member of the 81st Brigade who came home in August for family reasons, said “the transition is going to be tough” for his fellow troops.

“You go from constantly walking on eggshells, you don't know if a mortar's going to hit you today or run into an IED (improvised explosive device),” Black said. “These guys are going to have go back to normal.”

Above and beyond
While all employers must hold a place for Guard and reserve employees who are called to duty, some companies go above and beyond what the law requires.

Here in Puget Sound, at least 60 companies offer something in the way of extended pay or benefits, according to the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a federally-funded program that works with returning troops and their employers.

The companies — which range from The Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp. to Safeway Inc. and The Home Depot Inc. — either continue to pay their employees' full salaries while they are deployed or pay the differential between their military and civilian salaries. Many of the companies also extend medical and dental benefits for a period of time. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Washington Mutual Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co., two banking companies on the list, recently updated their policies. This February, WaMu increased the amount of time it offers salary differential and continued benefits from one year to two years. In January, Wells Fargo went from offering one month of full pay and eight months of pay differential to one month of full pay and 11 months of differential.

For the troops, the policies give their families a continuity in income and health benefits while they are deployed overseas. "I got a paycheck once a month from Boeing while I was on active duty for two and a half years," said Mark Peters, chief of Port Security Unit 313 with the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.