TWIN FALLS • After nine months in Afghanistan operating Black Hawk helicopters, about 60 soldiers with the Idaho National Guard returned to sacred soil last week when they touched down in Fort Hood, Texas.
And though the members of Company A, 1-168 General Support Aviation Battalion, were no doubt thrilled to return to loved ones and familiar surroundings after supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, some may face challenges readjusting to their stateside lives.
Over the years, the approximately 350 National Guard members in the Magic Valley have faced similar hurdles, which for the most part have nothing to do with battle fatigue or stress-related anxiety. They have simply tried to get back their old jobs or find new ones, and occasionally — even in Idaho, where military support is strong — they run into roadblocks.
Lynn Dunlap, a Twin Falls attorney and retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, spent the past decade assisting National Guard members and dependents with a litany of personal issues, some involving employment.
Guard members typically perform one weekend of drill per month, two weeks of active duty per summer and may be deployed full-time for up to a year depending
ing on the military needs of the country. This has been where job issues sometimes arise.
Ready to Work
On the surface, the issue seems clear-cut. According to the federal Uniform Services Employment Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), National Guard members and other military branch reservists are entitled to resume their jobs following deployment.
Explained Dunlap:“If they had a job when they went, they’re to have that job when they get back.”
But it doesn’t always work that way.
“The Guard members and other reservists come back and say, ‘I’m ready to work,’ but a lot of employers have made other accommodations while they’ve been gone,” Dunlap said.
And that can put employers and soldiers in unenviable positions.
“Employers will either have to terminate the hire they made when the Guard member was gone or move the Guard member into another job with comparable duties and pay,” Dunlap said.
In another complicated twist, employers can’t refuse to hire potential workers merely because they are in the military.
“You have some employers who don’t want to hire military personnel because they may be deployed,” Dunlap said. “And then some employers will fire them (Guard members and reservists) when they know there’s a deployment coming or hire them back, then fire them.”
All of this is illegal, Dunlap said, and can get employers in trouble — though in Idaho it doesn’t happen very often and is usually the result of ignorance, not malice. Since he began receiving complaints about Guard employment issues in 2005, Dunlap has averaged an estimated three to five complaints a year but has only had to file one suit. He knows of only one current pending case, in which the Jerome County Sheriff’s Office is accused of improperly treating and firing a Guardsman. The sheriff’s office has denied any wrongdoing. (Dunlap is not representing the plaintiff in that case.)
“Usually when employers are informed of the law, they apologize and hire the military members back,” Dunlap said. “If they don’t, I tell them that they will hire them back or I will see that they are sued.”
The Long Wait
At the Buhl Police Department, the hiring manager is himself in the National Guard.
Police Chief Eric Foster has been in the Guard for four and a half years and was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2010-11. At the time of his deployment, Foster was told he would replace the retiring police chief upon his return from Iraq. The city was true to its word; Foster was promoted to chief on Oct. 1, 2011.
“Before I left, we studied what my rights were under the law and what the city’s rights were, and they have been fabulous,” said Foster, 43. “The city of Buhl is very supportive of the Guard and reserve, and they follow the USERRA laws to a T.”
Foster is the only Guard member on the police force, but would have no qualms hiring other Guard members or reservists.
“They pride themselves on the highest level of professionalism, and they have all the great qualities you look for in an employee,” Foster said.
At the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, Capt. Doug Hughes supervises several National Guard employees in the 42-person Security Services Division. Over his 23 years at the sheriff’s office, Hughes has witnessed the deployment of several Guard members, the latest for a year. And though long deployments can cause logistical challenges for the department, Hughes understands and supports their missions and military responsibilities.
“It can be difficult to lose someone for that length of time, and we run a little bit of a staff shortage,” said Hughes, 42. “But we are able to maintain our ability to operate, and we have never run into a situation where we couldn’t.”
Hughes added that his department tries to hold open positions for deployed Guard members and reservists without temporarily filling the spots.
“We just don’t feel it‘s right to put someone through all that training to be a deputy and then have to let them go,” Hughes said. “So we just leave the position open until they (Guard/reservists) get back from active duty.”
Hughes lauds the attributes Guard members and reservists bring to the job.
“Most of them come with a military background and understand that regulations have to be followed to work in a law enforcement environment,” Hughes said. “They also have knowledge of stressful situations that you won’t get from civilian employees and are able to adapt to changing situations. And that’s a leg up in this type of profession.”
Structure and Discipline
Jessica Guevara has two legs up.
The senior deputy in Hughes’ Security Services Division was active-duty Army for five years before joining the TwinFallsCounty Sheriff’s Office. As she raised a son and performed a myriad of duties in the sheriff’s office, memories of her military service stayed with her. So about a year and a half after she became a deputy, Guevara enlisted in the National Guard.
“I just missed the structure and discipline in the Army,” she said. “I thought that being in the National Guard would cure that want and allow me to raise my son in a stable environment.”
And it has — for the most part.
As a sergeant responsible for inspecting mobile dining facilities in National Guard Charley Company 145th BSB out of Boise, Guevara relishes the goal of her job — keeping soldiers from getting sick. But there are aspects of the Army she still misses.
“Active duty was easier for me, because now I have this life here, but on my weekend duty I have to completely change gears and it’s a little weird sometimes,” she said.
About a year and a half ago, Guevara shifted from first gear to autobahn. Following weeks of intense drilling, she and her comrades shipped out to Iraq for what would be a year’s active duty. Was she worried her job would disappear while she was away?
“I talked to the captain before I left, and he assured me that I would have a job when Igot back,” she recalled.
Pride is evident as Hughes talks about his military employees.
“People should know that the National Guard and reservists are working for us, and they have obligated their lives to serving this country,” he said. “We miss them dearly when they are not here, but employers should make things right for them when they get back (from deployment). There are no two ways about that.”