Work-family issues rank, even in the Army

The service shifts to shorter tours of duty abroad, hoping to retain citizen soldiers.

Maj. Michael Pacheco was unmarried when he first went to Bosnia in 1996. The Massachusetts National Guardsman completed the required nine months - the maximum time allowed - with little difficulty.

He will be returning to Bosnia in April for another nine-month stint, but this time he is married - and he admits he is a bit nervous about it.

"I'll be quite frank, being away for nine months can create problems in a relationship," he says. "There has to be a real communication with your partner."

Major Pacheco will be one of the last National Guard soldiers to spend nine months away from home. The Army this week decided to limit tours of duty overseas to six months - a recognition that it must heed concerns about family hardship if it is to retain its sizable force of citizen soldiers.

In announcing the change March 7, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki acknowledged mounting strain on soldiers in the National Guard and the Army Reserve, their families, and full-time employers.

Reliance on reservists

The Army has increasingly come to rely on its reservists, who have grown to a combined force of 800,000. At the end of the cold war, the US reduced its full-time forces from 2.1 million soldiers to the current 1.4 million - leaving the military struggling to balance its traditional combat role with its increasing role as global peacekeeper.

"This smaller force has had a very difficult time doing everything it's supposed to do, as well as taking care of expanding peacekeeping missions," says Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University and a former Army officer. "So the effect was to call on the reserve components."

But with missions that drag on indefinitely (US peacekeepers have been in Bosnia for five years and the Sinai Peninsula for 20 years), a backlash is growing to the use of these troops.

Civilian employers on edge

Experts agree the new six-month policy, one that also applies to active-duty soldiers, is the Pentagon's response to families and employers who are feeling frustrated by the increased reserve-unit deployment.

"It is stressful for many employers, especially if the soldier works at a small company in a key position," says Maj. Robert Jones, with the North Carolina National Guard.

Of the hundreds of soldiers pulled from jobs each year, Major Jones says the North Carolina Guard has to work with about 5 percent of their employers. "Sometimes they think, 'If we can do without the guy for this long, maybe we can do without him for good.' " That's not the right attitude, Jones says.

Pacheco agrees a big stumbling block is pulling people away from their full-time jobs. In his home state of Massachusetts, high-tech workers find it especially hard to be away for nine months, often falling behind in such a rapidly evolving field.

Army officials hope the six-month deployments will help ease tensions with employers and boost morale by bringing their reserve units in line with the other services. Active-duty Army units generally deploy for no more than six months (although until now there has been no formal policy), and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units generally deploy for no more than three months.

But the new policy may have unintended consequences. For instance, shorter deployments mean more deployments, so soldiers could be called to serve more frequently. And the length of training will not be shortened.

North Carolina, which traditionally sends large numbers of reservists overseas, is preparing to send two units to Bosnia in September. While the soldiers will spend six months there, they need special training before going. That is set to begin in July. So in the end, the two North Carolina units - like many others - will still spend close to nine months away from their full-time jobs.

While many may see the new policy as a step forward, others see it as avoiding the real issue.

"It's not a good policy in the sense that it is being undertaken to avoid confronting the central dilemma of the military," says Professor Bacevich. "We, as a nation, have not created an active force large enough to take on the role of imperial police force. And that is creating tension."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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