Several years ago I spent nearly three years working for the Department of Defense, in what is now a rebuilt portion of the Pentagon, in the Office of Reserve Affairs. I was privileged to work on issues relating to employer support of the National Guard and Reserves. Volunteers in the National Guard and Reserves receive certain pay and benefits while working their civilian jobs, in return for training one weekend a month and two full weeks a year to serve alongside our active military forces. They may be called to service at any time by the President and/or the Congress to aid in our national defense.
At the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, our nation experienced a substantial paradigm shift in national defense; the federal budget for defense steadily declined from $400 billion in 1985 to roughly $250 billion in 1997. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, we have reinvigorated our defense department, reengaged our forces, and placed even greater reliance upon the National Guard and Reserves. This year, the defense budget for 2003 is predicted to run about $380 billion.
With the elimination of the draft, it is not surprising that a significant portion of our military consists of the voluntary participation of our civilians – the men and women in the National Guard and Reserves. At present, they supply almost half of our U.S. military strength; there are approximately 1,500,000 active duty personnel and an equivalent number from Reserve components. There were nearly 264,000 reservists supporting the Desert Storm operation in 1991; recent reports suggest that as many as 360,000 reservists will be called upon to support our actions against Iraq.
Congress formally granted reservists certain employment and reemployment rights when it enacted the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) in 1994. The Act seeks to ensure that members of the uniformed services are entitled to return to their civilian employment upon completion of their service. They are to be reinstated with the seniority, status, and rate of pay they would have obtained had they remained continuously employed by their civilian employer. The law also protects individuals from discrimination in hiring, promotion and retention on the basis of present and future membership in the armed services.
Given the relatively high level of employment over the last decade, it has been difficult enough for businesses to attract and retain valuable employees. Now, with thousands of reservists being called up, many businesses are being or will be affected by the absence of employees. Exacerbated by the recent economic slowdown and its prolonged effects, the employers’ burden associated with supporting reserve personnel on active duty will be all that more significant, especially for smaller businesses. For some employers, these financial burdens may threaten the very lives of their enterprises and those whom they support.
National security threats require a significant response if we are to protect American liberty and free enterprise. Alongside the sacrifices being made by citizen soldiers and their families, it is also necessary for employers to be as supportive and persevering as possible in the absence of their employees.
We owe great respect, admiration and support to those who contribute their lives to preserve and protect the American way of life. We cannot protect American freedom and sustain our quality of life without these types of commitments and inevitable sacrifices. The least we can do for our fighters is preserve their jobs and opportunities should they be fortunate enough to return. Perhaps a greater awareness of these obligations within the business community can serve to ease the problematic situations they will surely generate, and encourage greater goodwill toward others in the business community who do make those sacrifices.
It is up to us to show our gratitude.
Gratitude among friends is like credit among tradesmen: it keeps business up, and maintains commerce. And we pay not because it is just to discharge our debts, but that we might the more easily find lenders on another occasion. François, Duc De La Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680)