Selling the Guard

Military officials hope that inviting bosses to watch their employees who are serving in the National Guard train for fighting in war will increase employers' support for the Guard and part-time soldiering.

August 14, 2005|By Story by MATTHEW DOLAN | Story by MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN STAFF

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - At a dusty encampment filled with canvas tents and loblolly pines, Linda Schmidt finally spotted her elusive employee.

Michael Kristian, a 38-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Army National Guard, had temporarily left his job as security director for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services in Woodlawn for combat training here. His next stop could be Iraq.

Schmidt couldn't have been more supportive as she trailed Kristian under a hot Carolina sun, through ear-shattering rifle ranges and into mock assaults on enemy-held towns.

Still, at the end of the day, she seemed a little worn, never finding out what she really wanted to know - when she could expect Kristian to return to his job in Woodlawn.

"He's not really gone, so it's not like I can replace him," Schmidt said during the military-sponsored tour. "We need him pretty badly."

What employers like Schmidt think about the National Guard is increasingly critical as the military struggles mightily to attract new recruits and keep their employers happy.

Schmidt's drop-in visit this summer is part a National Guard effort to lobby anxious employers by letting them watch how their employee-turned-soldiers train to fight. It's called a "boss lift," and the concept isn't new.

But the Maryland Guard has given it a fresh look, with a shortened, one-day tour customized to match local employers with their employee Guard members. Supporters say the approach is spreading across the country and could become an essential tool for reassuring business leaders that the Guard service can be a good thing for their employees.

The Army National Guard has fallen short of its recruiting goals every month since November, even though recent re-enlistment rates have hit an all-time high. In Maryland, the trend is similar.

"We recognize the stresses we put on employers," said Brig. Gen. Edward A. Leacock, assistant adjutant general for the Maryland Army National Guard. "We're trying to be better about how much heads-up we give them about upcoming deployments."

Eventually, a flood of troops will be returning from Iraq and the Guard also hopes to help employers manage that deluge and reintegrate the soldiers into their civilian jobs.

For years, the military invited employers of members of the National Guard and Reserves to camp out for several days at a military base, as a sort of fact-finding mission and patriotic booster shot.

Officials wanted to dispel the notion that the employees are "playing hooky" in the woods during training, which traditionally included one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

Employer outings, however, formerly demanded a significant time commitment, usually three days or more at a base halfway across the country. Organized nationally instead of locally, boss lifts rarely provided employers the chance to see their own workers. Instead, they saw whoever happened to be training that day.

Though the tours drew hundreds during the 1980s, employer interest dwindled in recent years, despite the fact that almost a half-million reservists have been mobilized into federal service since Sept. 11, 2001.

Until recently, the National Guard Bureau didn't track who its employers were, a point that critics have said illustrated its inability to manage massive call-ups well. Maryland's boss lifts could help reverse the trend, officials say.

The abbreviated, nine-hour trip to Fort Bragg this summer was sponsored by the state's Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. It drew 72 employers, almost three times the number that attended a similar, three-day trip to Fort Knox, Ky., in April.

Half of those who went to Fort Bragg said in surveys that they saw their own workers in uniform, firing assault rifles on a training range or learning how to storm an insurgent's house.

Dazzled employers put down their camera phones and gamely donned heavy battle armor to feel its 40-pound-plus weight. It was all to get a sense of what their own employees were going through.

They didn't eat Meals Ready to Eat, known as MREs, but they served as townspeople when the soldiers surprised them with an ambush in a neighborhood erected like a Hollywood movie set on the base.

Wearing an Army helmet that swallowed her head, Stella M. Miller, president of Stella May Contracting in Edgewood, said she found the experience thrilling.

"It's tough to run a small business and worry about people leaving," said Miller, whose company started with three people in 1995 and has grown to 65 employees, largely depending on military and other government construction projects. "But isn't what they do tough, too?"

The Guard service is creating fewer problems for employers these days. The number of Guard and Reserve being called to active duty has fallen to its lowest levels in almost four years. But pressure on employers may grow later if the conflict in Iraq continues long enough to require more troop call-ups to replace returning Guard.

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