Balancing a job, a family, and Saddam Hussein

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Col. Jet Jernigan wouldn't be surprised if one day a South Carolina employer received a letter that read like this:

"Dear Boss. Sorry I'm late for work. Stuck in a prisoner-of-war camp. Will write soon."

His F-16 unit of the South Carolina Air National Guard spent the winter skipping through flak and bursts of anti-aircraft fire in the northern no-fly zone over Iraq.

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Gone are the days when the lawyers, truck drivers, and mechanics who make up most of the Guard just reported for a day of maneuvers at a local airfield. Today, National Guard and Reserve troops across the United States are increasingly being thrust into front-line combat roles.

The experience of two South Carolina units - in Iraq and Kuwait - shows how their duties have fundamentally changed. They are case studies in the Pentagon's difficult balancing act when it comes to sharing the demands of its full- and part-time troops.

"More and more Guard units are going to be doing this," says Chief Warrant Officer James Robinson, a full-time South Carolina Army National Guardsman, who pilots Apache attack helicopters.

Reservists have been hopping overseas for years, but mainly in support. Now, the Guard and Reserve are increasingly relied upon for tasks once performed almost exclusively by active-duty forces. Last month, for instance, an Army National Guard general from Texas became the first part-time officer to command active-duty soldiers.

Most members of the Guard and Reserve are still adjusting to these evolving expectations. Many are part-time "weekend warriors" who signed on for one-weekend-a-month training and two weeks away in the summer.

For the members of Officer Robinson's Apache unit, that commitment turned into a six-month mission in Kuwait to serve as a deterrent to an Iraqi invasion. Including training time out of state, the 31-year Guard veteran was away from home for eight months.

Active-duty troops are used to missing birthdays and anniversaries. But not Guard troops, who often balance full-time jobs, family, and the military.

While Lt. Col. David Anderson - a Columbia, S.C., lawyer - was in Kuwait, his wife gave birth to their second child. Robinson learned that his son was diagnosed with diabetes. "You have to have your family prepared to take over everything," Robinson says. "My wife is pretty strong. I knew she could do it."

In addition to the strain on families, these long missions also tax employers, who are forced to find temporary replacements in a time when labor is scarce. Many in the Guard worry that these tensions - both at work and at home - could lead to an employee exodus similar to the one troubling the active-duty military.

Already, some units are finding it hard to fill spaces. For most of his career, Colonel Anderson had no trouble finding Apache pilots. That has changed recently. With long missions such as the recent tour in Kuwait, Anderson says he is about 10 pilots short for his 40 flying slots.

"It used to be that we would receive several calls a week from active-duty pilots wanting to find a home in the National Guard," says Anderson. "Now, those calls are few and far between."

Moreover, Anderson and his colleagues know long overseas tours will probably come up again in the near future. They are among a handful of Guard Apache units who are likely to be recalled to the Balkans or Middle East.

At the same time, these tours are becoming more and more dangerous. Capt. Scott Bridgers, a former Air Force pilot who now flies for the Guard full time, says Iraq was a war zone. The Iraqis launched few surface-to-air missiles, but they fired anti-aircraft guns every day.

Captain Bridgers had a scare one day, wandering into an intense array of flak. On another mission, he discovered a surface-to-air missile battery and destroyed it.

One-quarter of the 20 F-16 pilots in Bridgers's unit were part-timers.

Filling the no-fly zones with potent fighter jets is routine for the Air Force. But for the Guard, it's a logistical nightmare. When the South Carolina-based F-16s spent a 45-day mission in Turkey patrolling the no-fly zone, it took six months of planning. That's because the 1,200-member Air Guard has only 347 full-time workers.

"We try to do the same mission as the Air Force with one-tenth the full-time people," says Maj. Dave Dickson, project officer for the Turkey deployment.

Colonel Jernigan calls it "sustained volunteerism." Every Guard member who went to Turkey was a volunteer. He says he can live with one deployment. But his unit will no doubt be called to go back in the next several years, and that worries him.

"We're interested in the third time we go - some guy whose boss may tell him he'll fire him," he says. "We want to see the long-term impact of this."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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