War Stories: Painful Deployments

Not all patriots wear fatigues. Some, it turns out, wear business suits. Take the case of Dave Dougherty, who owns a company called Data World in Bethesda, Md. One of his key employees, Jeff McIntosh, has been deployed for almost two years now. McIntosh, who does technological infrastructure for the small company, was first mobilized in November 2001. The Army reservist came back to work the following summer, but was called up again half a year later for Iraq.

McIntosh's deployment couldn't have come at a worse time for Data World, which has just eight employees. McIntosh was in the middle of upgrading the computers and planning a big move. "It put everybody in a difficult position," says Dougherty, who had to spend an extra $25,000 to get the complicated computers the company uses installed. Dougherty has hired temps here and there, but the company has had to put on hold a lot of projects. With one of his key employees gone indefinitely, Dougherty ended up having to apply for a six-figure emergency loan from the Small Business Association.

By law, Dougherty has to give McIntosh his job back. There are some exceptions; a reservist's job can be cut during company-wide layoffs or if a particular job is phased out permanently. But Dougherty isn't considering easing out McIntosh. He sees the financial toll the deployment is taking on his business as his small part of the war effort. Besides, he likes McIntosh's disciplined worth ethic. "When I ask him to do something, he says 'yes, sir,' and it's done," Dougherty explains.

With so many reservists and National Guard members leaving their jobs to serve in Iraq and elsewhere, employers are often left short-handed. It hurts the self-employed and small businesses the hardest. Most companies so far have risen to the challenge. While the Labor Department has had to intercede in a few cases, there is yet to be a wave of reservists returning to find they no longer have jobs. "Most employers want to do the right thing," explains Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Her department has tried to head problems off by getting out information about the labor laws protecting reservists. But she says, "There is no question that there is an economic sacrifice on the part of the employer."

No one seems to know how big an economic sacrifice that is. There's never been a reservist deployment quite like this one. While reservists and their families don't suffer any more than active-duty military and their loved ones, the fact that they have civilian jobs makes their economic situation unique. Many of them take pay cuts when they are mobilized. A lot of the economic impact is hard to measure: self-employed soldiers are losing business to competitors while they are away. The Department of Defense is only now coming up with a national database that would track just what kinds of businesses employee reservists and how it affects them financially.

Some companies, like Home Depot are actively supporting their reservists. The company has had 1,800 employees mobilized for the war in Iraq. Home Depot has tried to support those employees' families by sending out "Team Depots" to do home repairs in their absence--things on the "honey do" list. The retailer is also making up any pay differential for the first six months of deployment. Why? "Loyalty builds for those companies that do the right thing and invest in their communities," explains spokeswoman Goldie Taylor, who used to be a public-affairs officer for the Marine Corps.

Home Depot doesn't just see soldiers and their families as potential customers, but potential employees. Every year, Taylor says, 250,000 soldiers go back into the work force. "This is our target market for recruitment," Taylor says. Good employees and good soldiers have a lot in common, she says: initiative, integrity and leadership.

But not all employers are so far-sighted. Some military watchers worry that this longer-than-usual deployment will mean that reservists face some job discrimination in the future. Just as some potential employers hold family obligations against employees, the same may happen to those with military duties. But given the choice of hiring a reservist or a civilian, Dougherty sounds very sincere when he says, "It wouldn't make a difference to me." As long as they are of McIntosh's caliber. His country may need him right now, but so do Dougherty's computers.


T. Trent Gegax's column last week asked whether there wasn't a better way to treat a soldier suffering from combat stress. Some of our readers' responses:

Sgt. Darryl L. Askew of Dallas wrote:

I think it's wrong to send a soldier to trial for a human emotion of fear. Fear is a common human trait. Rather than help him he was told to get his head outta his a--. I guess you could send half of my unit to trial for cowardice. People are scared here and you don't know what to do sometimes. Everyone has picked up and moved on to the next biggest stories in the media, but they fail to recognize the dangers soldiers face on a daily basis. I get so sick and tired of everyone thinking because you're in the military you should be fearless. It's not true. Soldiers are real people with feelings and real human emotions.

Lynne Foster of Davison, Mich., wrote:

I have a son over in Iraq and I expect the U.S. Army to step into the 21st century and treat our soldiers as human beings with problems that need addressing with appropriate measures, not with disciplinary action. If Jessica Lynch can be treated as a hero, so should anyone else under the same stress. It is a very stressful time for all involved overseas and at home.

Denis Howard of Marina, Calif., wrote:

Feelings of being alone and isolated can be overwhelming, as can feelings of inadequacy and failure. Individual replacements joining a unit know no one. They are just "the new guy" and if they stumble or fail or falter in any small way they can be subjected to unending and often very brutal criticism and even physical attack by their own. If viewed as less than competent, they are viewed as a liability and possible danger to their own. I witnessed it onboard the USS Forrestal when a young, weak sailor was harassed for being gay by men in his section. He jumped overboard at night and even though the rescue helicopter was able to get a hoist to him he gave it up and drowned.

Lacy Darlyn Nichols of Melbourne, Fla., wrote:

As for soldiers that don't receive the help that is needed and asked for, the people who brush them off or put a quick fix on the situation should be put in prison. It is unacceptable to me as an American to know that our troops are not being cared for in the proper way. If you ask me, a whole hell of a lot more people should be just as angry. It hurts my heart to know that I have family over there that may or may not receive the help they ask for and deserve. The higher-ups need to start stepping up and taking better care of their comrades.