Reservists pay steep price for service
By Sandra Block 

Thousands of citizen soldiers charged with rebuilding Iraq face an even more daunting prospect when they return home: repairing the damage to their careers and personal finances.

For some, the task could take years. More than a third of military reservists and National Guard members suffer a cut in pay when they're called to active duty. Long term, the cost of military service is even greater: Small businesses collapse. Raises and bonuses disappear. Clients defect to competitors.

Reservists and Guard members are being deployed more frequently, and for longer periods, than ever before. As of May 28, there were 219,692 on active duty vs. just 83,746 a year ago, according to the Department of Defense. Some have been called up two or three times since the Sept. 11 attacks.

And unlike Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when most returned after six months, many citizen soldiers in this war have been on duty for a year or longer. Those who have already returned home worry they'll be called up again to fight the war on terror or help with the reconstruction of Iraq.

"I don't think people understand the sacrifices," says Marilyn Harrell, 36, of Charleston, W.Va. Her husband, Todd Harrell, 36, owns a video and graphics production company that has been in limbo since his National Guard unit was deployed to Afghanistan in December. Until last year, his longest deployment was three weeks, when he was called up for local flood duty.

The average active duty pay for midlevel officers in the Guard and Reserves is $50,000 to $55,000 a year. They also receive tax breaks, health care benefits, a housing allowance and retirement benefits after 20 years of service.

Inactive members are paid for monthly weekend drills and annual two-week training sessions. An inactive midlevel officer with 10 years of experience earns about $10,400 a year in drill pay.

But many professionals in their peak earning years are paying a steep price when they are called to active service. Nancy Koehler, 35, a Richmond, Va., real estate agent who is a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Forces Reserve, has been on active duty since September 2001. She's been in the USA the entire time and visits her husband and 5-year-old daughter on weekends. But she was forced to put her residential real estate business on hold during one of the hottest real estate markets in history.

Koehler, whose husband is a police officer, says her income dropped about 20% during her deployment. Her real estate license expired, which means she'll have to attend continuing education courses and apply for recertification when she returns to civilian life later this year. She'll also have to find new clients. "People won't wait for you," she says. "I basically have to start that over."

Lawmakers take action

Lawmakers, concerned that financial pressures will deplete the ranks of the part-time military, have introduced legislation to provide relief. Proposals pending in Congress would reduce the gap between civilian and military pay, improve health care and retirement benefits, and provide spouses with more protection from creditors.

Members of the active duty military and their families also suffer financial hardships, particularly when a spouse is deployed thousands of miles from home. But reservists and Guard members bear the added burden of juggling military and civilian careers. In some cases, they're given just 12 hours to report for active duty.

"You're sort of like Batman in the Reserves," says Jesse Miller, 33, a San Francisco attorney and a company commander for the California Army National Guard. "You never know when the bat light is going to go off."

Miller was on his honeymoon in a remote part of Mexico when he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks. Anxious to learn if he was being called up, he scrambled to find a section of the beach with cell phone reception. His deployment came in January 2002, when he went to Kuwait for six months.

Miller says the deployment was harder on his wife, Katya, 32, than it was on him. "One of the lingering issues for many reservists, especially ones who have been away for long term, is significant others having to go through that emotionally," he says.

Because of the possibility of another call-up, the Millers have postponed buying a house. Another extended deployment might make it difficult for them to afford the mortgage in the high-cost Northern California housing market, Miller says.

The potential for future call-ups also weighs on their decision to start a family. "I don't want to be gone when my first child is born," Miller says. But if the country continues to rely heavily on the part-time military, "We can't put our lives on hold," he adds.

A changing workforce

Citizen soldiers are protected by federal laws designed to preserve their civilian jobs and pension benefits. But advocates say the protections, originally drafted more than 60 years ago, have failed to keep up with changes in the economy and the workforce.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act bars employers from discriminating against reservists and Guard members who are called to active duty. When they return, they're entitled to the same seniority status and pay they would have received if they had remained on the job. The protections were updated in 1994. Even with the changes, the law fails to address many realities of the modern workforce, reservists say. Among them:

oThe service economy. More part-time soldiers than ever before hold white-collar jobs. For lawyers, real estate agents and sales representatives, an extended deployment can unravel relationships with customers and clients that took years to cultivate.

When Jesse Miller was deployed to Kuwait, his employer, Seyfarth Shaw, made up the difference between his lower military pay and his salary as an associate at the law firm. His colleagues pitched in to help cover his caseload and make his return as seamless as possible, says Bill Dritsas, managing partner at the firm.

But Miller acknowledges that frequent deployments could slow his ability to build a client base, key to a successful law practice. While clients "appreciate your service, it's tough to build your own business when you're constantly deployed," he says. "It's something I'm willing to do personally because I believe in the service, but it's tough."

Carl Ostergaard, 28, a financial planner for American Express, in Manhattan, has used his experience with the Army National Guard and, more recently, as a staff sergeant with the Air Force Reserve, to attract military clients. So far, his deployments have been short - he recently returned from a three-week stint at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Air Station - enabling him to keep in touch with clients through the Internet. But a longer call-up could make it difficult for him to service his accounts, he says. Ostergaard is a contract worker for American Express, and his entire compensation comes from fees and commissions. "It's a dicey thing, being a reservist and having a job somewhere," Ostergaard adds. "It's like having two girlfriends."

oSmall businesses. Self-employed workers, who account for about 6% of reservists, may pay the highest price for serving their country. Some lose customers, fall behind on their bills or are forced into bankruptcy.

Marilyn Harrell says her family's biggest challenge will come this summer, when her husband returns home and the military paychecks stop. "If he doesn't produce, he doesn't get paid," she says.

Small enterprises fall

Some small businesses have already become casualties of the war on terror. In March, Duane Croniser, 46, left his home near Watertown, N.Y., to join the Army reserves in Iraq. He left behind a wife, two children, 40 cows and five calves. Susan Croniser recently sold the cows at auction because she could no longer manage the farm alone. "I work full time, and I just couldn't do it," she says. "It's too much work. He might be over there two years."

Croniser says her family can live comfortably on her husband's military pay, but keeping the farm would have created a financial burden. "It's not cheap to find someone to work," she says.

Her husband, who worked on a farm as a child, was sorry to lose the business, which he bought in 1993. Fortunately, the auction, which had been previewed in the local Watertown Daily Times, attracted a crowd. The sale averaged about $920 a cow, Susan Croniser says. She videotaped the event for her husband, who postponed his military retirement to serve in Iraq.

Susan Croniser's biggest challenge now is finding a place for herself and her two children, Lauren, 10, and Zachary, 14, to live. They have to move off the farm by July, and she doesn't want to buy a home until her husband returns. And that's proving much more difficult than selling the cows. "There are places in town that are empty, but people don't want to rent, they want to sell," she says.

oMerit pay. For some professionals, an extended deployment can cost them a much-needed raise. Many companies award salaries based on merit, not seniority, says Capt. Samuel Wright, who helped write the 1994 job-protection law. And when a worker has been gone for months, companies may argue that they have no way to evaluate performance.

Wright, an ombudsman for the Reserve Officers Association, says he recently talked with an insurance executive in his 50s who was told he was ineligible for a raise after a year of active duty in the Army Reserve. The decision could affect his pension, based on his top five earning years. "There's a huge amount at stake," Wright says.

oJob turnover. The average U.S. worker changes jobs 10 times, according to the Department of Labor. That worries some members of the part-time military, who fear the prospect of deployments will make it harder to find a job.

Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who led a delegation earlier this year to meet with reservists and Guard members stationed in Europe, says several told him they're omitting their military service from their résumés. One reservist who is a business owner told the group he wouldn't hire a reservist or Guard member, McHugh says.

In the days after Sept. 11 and during the conflict in Iraq, many employers were eager to support citizen soldiers. But some service members fear patriotism will wane as Iraq fades from headlines, even though many citizen soldiers will remain on duty for months.

Patrick Kirby, a Spokane attorney and former Navy lieutenant who specializes in employment law, recalls advising a human resources manager about the rights of a reservist who wanted to take 90 days off for active-duty training. The manager said she thought workplace protections were limited to war time. This was in February 2002, just five months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he says.

"It was kind of shocking that there were still people who didn't get it," Kirby says. "We're in a very dangerous world. We really need to rally around these service members who are putting their lives and fortunes on the line for us."

Refusing to Kill