GAO urges better support for reservists

Report lists shortcomings in programs for soldiers and families left behind

March 21, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Programs meant to ease the hardships on military reservists and their families don't go far enough, threatening the viability of the National Guard and Reserves even as the country increases its reliance on them, says a congressional investigator leading the first major survey of reservists' pay and benefits since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Derek B. Stewart, director of military and civilian personnel issues at the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said yesterday that his researchers have found serious shortcomings in programs to help reservists with finances, health care, family support and relations with their employers.

The country's 1.2 million military reservists - about 25,000 of them from Maryland - make up nearly half of all U.S. troops, and many have left jobs and families for the front lines in Iraq.

"My concern is that we're going to be calling on these guys more and more and more, and things that reservists have been able to tolerate and overlook are becoming a bigger deal than they have in the past," Stewart said in an interview.

Reservists, whose deployments have grown longer and more frequent since the end of the Cold War, won't re-enlist if they "continue to experience their income loss, their health care problems and the humiliation because they can't take care of their dependents."

A final GAO report is due in late summer, but Stewart submitted preliminary findings to Congress Wednesday night.

In peacetime, reservists train one weekend a month and two weeks a year, while holding down civilian jobs. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many units have been placed on active duty for as long as a year, sometimes for back-to-back deployments. As of this week, 212,617 reservists were on active duty, about 90,000 of them in support of the war in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Bob Stone, a Pentagon spokesman, said the office of reserve affairs had yet to review the GAO's preliminary findings. But he said the military had made large strides since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Last week, for instance, it significantly shortened the time reservists must be activated before their families qualify for the most comprehensive health plan.

Among the GAO's findings was that more than half of all reservists were either unaware of the services available to their families or believed that no services existed.

"The consequences are great," said Stewart, "because you have reservists with dependents who are left behind for three months, six months, nine months, and who don't have a clue as to how they're going to make it and who they can go to to get help."

Although reservists on active duty qualify for military health care, the hassles of joining the program and the fact that most reservists live more than 50 miles from military hospitals mean that many continue to pay out of pocket for civilian coverage rather than switch.

Another problem, says the GAO's Stewart, is that the military has failed to live up to its goal of giving reservists - and their employers - 30 days' notice before deployment. With some called up on just 48 hours' notice, employers are left in the lurch, making them less inclined to hire and support reservists.

One finding appears to debunk the idea that reservists take a big pay cut when activated. Stewart said 29 percent report an increase in income; 30 percent report no change.

Still, those who see the sharpest drop - doctors and nurses - are among those most sought-after by the military. Stewart says the Pentagon will probably need to offer higher pay to retain people in those specialties, something the Army Reserves is now exploring.

Most of this is no secret to Peter La Count of Catonsville, whose wife, Maj. Susan Sancilio La Count, recently left for the Middle East with the 424th Medical Logistics Battalion, an Army Reserve unit based at Fort Dix, N.J.

La Count, a speech therapist with the Howard County schools, was given just a week's notice, leaving her no time to train her replacement. Her husband volunteered to be the family support coordinator for the 300-member unit and tried to organize a briefing for families at Fort Dix last month.

But the base rebuffed him. "The reason I got was they would have had trouble controlling security," he said.

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