Gary Sallee drops into a chair across from me in the otherwise empty Nevada Department of Transportation training room and, in his soft Kentucky drawl, tells me a little about his journey as a U.S. Air Force Reservist.
Sallee is a master sergeant assigned to the 555th Red Horse Squadron, a rapid-deployment, heavy-construction unit based at Nellis Air Force Base. When he returned from his 2007 deployment to Forward Operating Base Hammer, roughly 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, his former employer, a construction contractor, told him, “Just call back when you get off orders.”
So he did.
“I don’t have anything,” his former boss told him. “Jobs have kinda gone by the wayside.”
Later, Sallee learned he’d been replaced. “They had no intention of bringing me back, because of the possibility of a deployment.”
As a whole, Americans love the men and women serving in our military. We thank them on crowded concourses with a slap on the shoulder or a handshake or a smile as they stride purposefully toward gates en route to distant lands. But our understanding of military life is limited, especially when it comes to “part-timers”—the National Guard and Reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who work full-time jobs in the civilian sector and serve state and federal governments when called. They don’t have the active-duty support network, job security or, all too often, the societal respect enjoyed by their active-duty counterparts.
Living in two worlds, they are given the pejorative appellation of “weekend warrior” and generally seen as less capable, less committed and less disciplined by their active-duty counterparts. But being “part time” made no difference to the 690 Guard and Reserve personnel killed thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan, nine of whom called the Battle Born State their home.
More than 70,000 Guard and Reserve personnel are on active duty, according to the Department of Defense. The 485th Military Police Detachment, based in Las Vegas, has 65 soldiers deployed and a scattering of Guard and Reservists on full-time orders.
Back home, laws are in place to protect Guardsmen and Reservists from job discrimination. Still, some employers would just as soon avoid the hassle. And who can blame them? For small businesses, the deployment of just one individual can mean a significant loss of revenue.
Fortunately, while there are some bosses out there who aren’t willing to work with people such as Sallee, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
George Ott, a specialist with the 249th Engineer Company, is the only full-time estimator for American Auto Body, a small, family-owned shop—and he’s grateful to have an understanding employer. So far, Ott and his boss have only had to work around the standard home-station drill schedule of one weekend a month and two weeks a year. But Ott knows that when his deployment orders come, American Auto Body’s profits may take a hit.
“We like to help people who are just starting out,” says Jeff Bagley, who owns American Auto Body. “We find more mutual loyalty in employees when we hire them, train them and start them out in their career.” Bagley knew Ott had a Guard commitment before he hired him, but “there wasn’t even a hiccup. It’s difficult to get good employees; I would take four of him in a heartbeat. Even though it’s more difficult when he is gone, he will definitely have a job when he gets back.”
On a larger scale, MGM Resorts International hosts the Hero Program, which covers the full pay and benefits of deployed Guard and Reserve members. Major April Conway, the Nevada Guard’s public-affairs officer, lauds MGM Resorts for an “amazing program,” but she realizes that “not every employer can afford to be so fiscally generous.”
Nonetheless, she says businesses of all sizes go out of their way to accommodate soldiers and airmen. “They re-adjust schedules to work around drill weekends, annual training, schools and deployments. They keep in touch with family members left at home during deployments, and they send care packages to their employees while in harm’s way.”
In 2008, after being rebuffed by his former boss, Sallee found a job with the Nevada Department of Transportation, where things have gone so well that he’s been promoted four times in four years. Sallee was so impressed with the way he’s been treated that he nominated NDOT for the 2012 Department of Defense Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Freedom Award. NDOT is now one of 26 Nevada businesses in the running for this national recognition. Since the Freedom Award was conceived in 1996, only two Nevada companies have won it: MGM Mirage (now MGM Resorts) in 2006 and Sierra Pacific Resources (now NV Energy) in 2007.
Whether NDOT becomes the third Nevada employer to receive the honor isn’t important; what matters most is more and more in-state businesses are deemed deserving of the nomination. Because as we move into an uncertain future, the nation will likely continue to lean heavily on servicemen such as Sallee and Ott. In turn, our Guard and Reserve members will continue to rely on their employers for understanding, flexibility and job security.
Kurt Rice is a former U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant and intelligence specialist. He teaches English at Spring Valley High School.