Guard employers wonder when workers will returnby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota National Guard soldiers and their families are coming to terms with an extended deployment in Iraq. While the change is a disappointment for soldiers' families, the extension is also a challenge for employers with workers serving in Iraq.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Four officers with the St. Cloud Police Department are currently on active duty. Three of them are in Iraq, serving with the First Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Divison. Sgt. Gerry Edblad says his department knows now those soldiers won't be back as they'd originally thought.
"We were planning on having some officers back here hopefully by summer, but I don't that's going to happen," Edblad says.
The deployment comes at a tough time for the St. Cloud Police. This has been a year filled with retirements, and training for new officers not yet on the street. That leaves only about 75 officers available to patrol the city of 60,000, down from the usual force of 100. Sgt. Edblad says they've had to make a change in the type of calls they respond to.
"We now have the fire department responding to all of our medical calls just for the simple fact that, when some of our medical calls would come out and all of our officers are tied up, we just can't free them up to respond to medicals," says Edblad.
Edblad also says the shortage of officers means more cops are working overtime, fewer vacations are approved and response times are longer.
The extended deployment for National Guard soldiers will also hit the Pillager school district in central Minnesota. Two teachers from the local high school are currently serving in Iraq.
One teaches social studies and is the head basketball coach. The other is a special education teacher, the school's testing coordinator and head volleyball coach.
Scott Doss, principal of Pillager High School, says the two have taken on so many responsibilities, their absence is obvious in a school with only 28 teachers.
"(They have) big shoes to fill in terms of actual day to day manpower," Doss says.
The school was prepared to welcome back one of the teachers this spring, but that soldier is in the Minnesota National Guard brigade whose return home has been pushed back into summer.
Doss says the people they've hired to cover for the absent teachers will stay as long as they're needed. He says any extra work his staff has to pick up seems like a trivial thing when two of their colleagues are fighting in a war.
"We just take care of things and make it as seamless as possible for them I guess is what we do," Doss says.
Minnesota National Guard officials appreciate that attitude among employers, and they acknowledge that deployments are a hardship for more than just the solider and their family. Retired Air Force Brigadier General Denny Schulstad is chair of the Minnesota National Guard's Employer Support Group.
"Serving in the Guard or Reserve is really a three legged stool," he says. "You've got the member who's making huge sacrifices by being gone and putting their lives at stake. You've got families who are making huge sacrifices and the employers are making sacrifices."
Those sacrifices depend upon the number of employees at a workplace. Schulstad says obviously a company with 200 employees is not going to face the same pressure that a small business with just a few workers will deal with during a deployment.
Schulstad thinks Minnesota employers have been supportive of workers who serve in the Guard and Reserve. But he says long deployments are starting to wear on employers, just as they are on the soldiers and their families.
"It's very difficult to have a valued employee leaving for six months, a year, a year-and-a- half, and my gosh now it looks like it could even be longer than that," Schulstad says. "That's a major sacrifice. We really support those employers who support their employees who serve in the Guard and reserve."
Schulstad says by law a company is required give an employee their job back when they return from active duty. But he says they encourage employers to do more for soldiers. He says that could include paying the soldier a salary while they're deployed, or helping the soldier's family with household chores.
- Morning Edition, 01/12/2007, 7:25 a.m.