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Tue September 30, 2003
Families, businesses grapple with extended deployments
By Matt Hackworth
KANSAS CITY – More than 300,000 men and women in U-S reserve and National Guard forces have served supporting the wars on terrorism and in Iraq. Some part-time soldiers, sailors and airmen have returned home. But more than 170,000 remain on duty, not knowing how long they'll be in service and away from their lives in Kansas City and across the country. K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth reports on how local employers and families are handling the separation and ambiguity of extended deployments:
Lori Womble's husband is a mechanic in the Kansas Army National Guard. Womble's husband has been away, on active duty elsewhere in the U-S since February:
I knew it could happen I knew it was a possibility. I thought about it. I'm comfortable with it because that's what he signed up for. He knew going in that he could be called up to active duty and be gone I wish he was here but I understand. I try to be supportive.
Womble spends her time tending to her three young children, who do handsprings and play at the family's home in Gardner. She doesn't know when her husband will come home, and the National Guard doesn't, either. The guard and reserves provide only a range of one to two years. Lengthy deployments can be a hardship to families but to businesses, the ambiguity of when employees will return from military service presents different challenges.
Around 20 students in Miss Burnes' social studies class at Truman Middle School in St Joseph are preparing to take a test. The teacher who normally would give it to them is away, on active duty with the Missouri Army National Guard. St Joseph Associate School Superintendent Mark Hargens says it's hard to plan to fill in for reservists when it's not known how long teachers will be gone:
...that makes a lot of difference to us because if they're gonna be gone for a long time, it pays for us to try and go out and find a really good person. If you're only gonna be gone a month, then I might just use one of my regular substitutes who might not really be an expert in that field, just to cover until they get back.
And when reservists do return, federal law requires employers to give back their jobs. Of all the areas of work that have felt the pinch of deployments, the law enforcement and emergency services communities have been particularly hard hit. St Joseph Police Chief Mark Hirter once had seven police officers away on military duty, which he says took a toll on his small department. The chief says the unique training required for police work means his department isn't hiring replacements:
You can't just hire somebody, give em a badge and a gun and say, go to work. When we hire an officer if they haven't been to the academy, we send em all that is at considerable expense. 004 01:47
We don't plan for a 6-month period or a 9-month period. We really have to plan ad infinitum because we don't know.
Hirter says many of his officers are working overtime to fill in the gaps but he's concerned about future deployments. The chief estimates 10 percent of his department serves part-time in a military uniform in addition to wearing a police badge. While the chief says he's willing to make do until the deployments end, a group of reservists' husbands and wives is taking action. Spouses from the 129th Army Reserve transportation company here in Kansas City created an online petition, seeking a definitive date when their husbands and wives will come home. The group says more than 8,000 people have signed up on their web site. Despite that support, Rachel Trueblood says she and other spouses were criticized for speaking out:
We get it big time from neighbors, from other wives who just say or mothers who just say, just suck it up and deal with it.' Well we are. We have been. And we will be glad to do it but let's have the date when we can stop. That's all we want. Give us a date.
But a date may be hard for military officials to offer. Many of the military's specialty units are made up entirely of reservists, who are heavily involved in re-building Iraq. Until that country, half a world away, is able to stand alone; communities in the Kansas City area are likely to go without the teachers, police officers, husbands and wives who left behind civilian lives for military duty.