Last month, the final members of the 155th Brigade Combat Team still deployed in Iraq returned home, representing the single largest deployed unit in Mississippi since World War II.
While the homecoming has been joyous, the deployment and adjustment period has been understandably difficult for some. Department of Defense records show that more than 56,000 active National Guard troops and reservists nationwide have divorced since the campaign in Afghanistan started in 2001.
“Over a year or 18 months, people change, especially when soldiers come back from a combat zone,” said Lt. Colonel Tim Powell, public affairs officer for the Mississippi National Guard. “There’s a readjustment phase — we call it a decompression period — to try to unwind and settle back into a schedule as normal as possible and start back in your civilian life and job again. The families and the soldiers are all briefed on this before they leave and also when they come back. Soldiers and their families are offered counseling when they return. Most readjust well, but some people have a harder time with it.”
The Mississippi National Guard’s 12,250 members are protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA), a federal law that governs how military mobilization is handled in the workplace.
Three-fourths of the state’s members have been deployed since 9/11 and have been primarily involved in three operations: Operation Noble Eagle, a Homeland Defense mission in the U.S.; Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Published by the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a volunteer organization that falls under the auspices of the Department of Defense, an online resource, www.esgr.net, features an informative section for employers and employees covering issues ranging from notice of deployment to return to civilian life.
“When service members are about to be mobilized, they have to provide notice to their employers,” explained Scott Woods, who chairs the Mississippi committee for ESGR. “Also during the time they serve, they have to have served honorably for the act to apply. They have to return to work according to guidelines in USERRA. Those vary based on length of service. An example is the 155th. A service member has to report back to his employer within 90 days of the end of his service.”
Lack of communication is the primary reason problems arise between employees and employers, noted Woods.
“ESGR educates employers about what their employees are doing,” he said. “It’s important for them to know if the employee has a long or short lead time before deployment, for instance. As long as employees have complied with their obligations, they have the right to prompt re-instatement to the same or similar position. They can’t be penalized on seniority or pay rate, or be discriminated against for promotion or re-instatement for things like health insurance. That’s not to say an employer can’t fill their job, but if that happens, the employee can be trained or re-trained for a different skill or job.”
A common question concerns the typical amount of time between guard personnel receiving deployment orders and mobilizing, said Powell.
“A unit receives an alert order first,” he explained. “There’s not a time stamp on that alert period. We’ve had some personnel receive alerts and mobilize within 10 or 15 days. We’ve had some alerts where the unit doesn’t mobilize for months. We’ve had several alerts that were subsequently de-alerted.”
Even though personnel may serve in Iraq for 12 months, they may be absent from work for up to 18 months, including training time and de-mobilization. “It just depends on the type of unit,” said Powell.
Health and financial issues
Paul D. Purser, coordinator of the state’s 11 National Guard Family Assistance Centers, said his largest number of requests involve solving problems related to the healthcare delivery system.
“When mobilized for more than 30 days, the soldier’s healthcare is taken care of by the active component — in this case, the Army — and the family can choose Tricare. It’s not insurance; it’s an entitlement, and 99% choose that option,” he explained.
Coverage continues for the duration plus 180 days, Purser said. “This gets the returning employee back to work and into the employer-sponsored health insurance plan,” he said.
Financial counseling is available through the Veterans Administration. “It depends on the situation,” said Purser.
“Sometimes, a person that’s a bit more experienced helps just by talking to them. They don’t need sophisticated help, just a little bit of common sense.”
The Mississippi Military Family Relief Fund, signed by Gov. Haley Barbour June 14, 2005, makes grants up to $1,000 to families that experience financial difficulties because a family member from the Mississippi National Guard or Armed Forces Reserves has been called to active duty.
“Sometimes a car breaks down, or there’s an unforeseen emergency,” said Purser. “It’s simply a way to get over some of the rough spots that occur because of the mobilization.”
Woods emphasized: “The people who employ reservists are patriots and are making a sacrifice, too, but it’s a necessary sacrifice if America’s going to be strong. You can’t have half the military as a reserve component without the commitment of the service members, their families and their employers.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.