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US Families, Businesses Have Hard Time Coping With Extended Military Reserve Service - 2003-09-23

Some 300,000 men and women in U.S. reserve and National Guard forces were called to active duty over the past two years to support the war on terrorism and the reconstruction of Iraq. Less than half of these part-time soldiers, sailors and airmen have returned home. those who remain on duty now find themselves not knowing how long they'll be in service, and away from their civilian lives. Matt Hackworth reports from Kansas City on how 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. He has been away, on active duty elsewhere in the United States 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," she said. "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."

Mrs. Womble spends her time tending to her three young children, who do handsprings and play at the family's home in Gardner, Kansas. She doesn't know when her husband will come home, and the National Guard doesn't, either. Officials can provide families like hers only a guess of sometime between one to two years. The open-ended deployment can be a hardship for families, but for businesses, the uncertainty of when employees will return from military service presents different challenges.

Students in Miss Burnes' social studies class at Truman Middle School in St. Joseph, Missouri 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 he doesn't know how long his 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," he explains.

And when reservists do get back, federal law requires employers to return them to their jobs. Of all the areas of work that have felt the pinch of deployments, the law enforcement and emergency services communities have been especially hard hit. For example, seven officers with the St. Joseph Missouri Police Department were called to military duty at the same time. St. Joseph Police Chief Mark Hirter points out that 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," he said. "When we hire an officer, if they haven't been to the academy, we send 'em - all that is at considerable expense. We don't plan for a six-month period or a nine-month period. We really have to plan ad infinitum because we don't know."

Chief Hirter says many of his officers are working overtime to cover for reservists still on active duty, but he's concerned about future deployments. The chief estimates 10 percent of his department serves part-time in 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' wives and husbands is not. Spouses from the 125th Army Reserve Transportation Company in Kansas City have taken action. They created an online petition, asking the Defense Department to give them a definitive date when their loved ones will come home. The group says more than 8,000 people have signed up on their web site. But while many are eager to sign the petition, Rachel Trueblood says she and the other spouses who started the drive still faced criticism.

"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," she said.

But a date may be hard for Pentagon officials to set. Many of the military's specialty units are made up entirely of reservists, and they're heavily involved in re-building Iraq. Until communities there are able to stand on their own, towns here in the United States are likely to go without the teachers, police officers, husbands and wives who left their civilian lives behind for military duty, half a world away.