US Guard call-up hits cities hard
The biggest reserve activation since the Gulf War has depleted police and fire squads.
WASHINGTON — Whenever America calls up its National Guard and military-reserve troops, their families and bosses are generally ready to cope with the short-term absence of a loved one or worker.
But the call-up of "weekend warriors" since Sept. 11 is creating unusual - and some say unwise - strains, because the mobilization is so large and so many Guard and reserve troops are public-safety officers.
Across the US, the challenges are visible in a variety of ways:
The Des Moines police department lost nine of its 359 employees, even as it has beefed up its airport presence from one officer to eight at a time.
In Ashland, Ore., the call-up of police officers has rippled into the criminal-justice system. Several were to be important witnesses in upcoming trials. The cases must be postponed or tried without the police testimony.
In Kansas, 400 Guardsmen headed to Europe, representing the state's largest overseas contingent since World War II - a sign of how the size of this mobilization is testing US communities.
Whether at fire stations, prisons, or other public agencies, the Guards and reservists have left behind departments that are suddenly trying to do more with significantly less. They're scrambling to defend against terrorism - but with smaller staffs and often shrinking budgets, thanks to a slumping economy.
In all, about 70,000 Guard and reserve troops are now on duty for Uncle Sam - protecting US bases in Europe, flying over America's cities, or doing other tasks. That doesn't include 7,000 still guarding airports, or 4,200 headed to Salt Lake City for Olympics duty.
These numbers pale against the 340,000 called up in the 1991 Gulf War. But the new twist is that the call-up coincides with a major push for homeland security to prevent possible terrorist attacks. To compensate, many police departments are shifting more remaining staffers onto patrol duty.
"Detectives are working short, community relations is working short, traffic details are working short," says Sgt. Bruce Elrod in Des Moines. And despite the reshuffling, citizens have to wait longer for a police response.
In Ashland, a mountain-ringed Oregon town of about 20,000, two of 26 sworn police officers were among 581 Army National Guard troops called up from the area. This means half the two-man detective unit is gone. So is half the two-man traffic unit.
They can't be replaced, either, because under federal law their jobs must open when they return.
The upshot is leaner pay for the troops and also stretched hours for the colleagues they leave behind.
"Overtime is absolutely outrageous now," says Lt. Rich Walsh, second in command for the Ashland police.
And typically, when troops are deployed, relatively few employers provide them with "gap pay" to make up the difference between their military and civilian salary. Since Sept. 11, more employers are adding this benefit.
Guard or reserve duty can last from a few weeks to as much as two years.
Adding to the strain, Mr. Walsh says, is that Ashland is the kind of small, "livable" city people are coming to from bigger metro areas. The Sept. 11 attacks brought an uptick in growth, which puts more pressure on law-enforcement agencies.
In Ohio, meanwhile, the state's prison system has seen 176 employees called up. So far, it hasn't severely hampered the 15,500-person-strong agency.
But with 509 eligible for call-up, top officials have been worried. "It hasn't impacted us as badly as we thought it would," says corrections spokeswoman Andrea Dean.
But the numbers point up the concentration of Guard and reserve members in certain civilian professions. No one knows the exact breakdown, but experts say the largest concentrations are among police and firefighters, prison officers, and airline pilots. (Airlines, which are in tough economic straits, have been relieved to have some pilots called up - and thus off payroll.) These deployments - especially overseas - are raising homeland-security concerns. "If we have an attack on the US, we're going to need those people here - not walking children to school in Bosnia," says Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, referring to the 9,000 US troops on Bosnia peacekeeping duty. He adds: "A large percentage of Guardsmen are the local first responders" - police, fire, and emergency medical personnel - "and they're needed here."
In the long term, help may be on the way: President Bush's 2003 budget devotes $3.5 billion to first responders. But it's unclear how much will go to overtime or new-hire salaries.
What is clear is that the call-ups have landed particularly hard in some communities. Utah's activation of 2,100 Guard troops, largely for the Olympics, is the largest in its history. The Illinois Guard sent 1,500 troops to guard a US air base in Germany - the state's largest overseas deployment since the Korean War.
Meanwhile, families and bosses pine for the troops. In Boone, Iowa, Police Capt. Donald Anderson is sorely missed by his boss and his business-partner wife.
He left in November on Guard duty and is now in Kentucky. He may go overseas. Meanwhile, the other three police shift commanders have pitched in to cover for him. "I'm anxious to have him back," says Chief Steven Peasley. "But I'm planning on him being gone at least a year or longer."
Marla, his wife of 28 years, has taken over running "Yesterday's," the family restaurant they bought together last year - where tenderloin is the bestseller. She says she works "triple hard" to keep it going. That, she says, has been a blessing in one sense: "I'm so busy, I hardly have time to miss him."
Staff writer Brad Knickerbocker in Ashland, Ore., and Dave Ghose in Columbus, Ohio, contributed.