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July 2005
Citizen Soldiers Deploy Their Expertise
By Susanne Deitzel

Today, Chris Gilbert, associate director for the Charlotte Research Institute at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has taken some time out from his busy schedule for a cup of coffee and a talk about his second job. Smiling and fit, friendly and focused, he seems like a pretty gentle guy. However, Gilbert, an integral part of the economic development and research machinery that funnels into the university and the local economy, is looking to begin a year-long deployment in Iraq.

 

Leading Bravo Company

Bravo Company Commander for the National Guard’s 505th Battalion, an Engineering Combat (Heavy) unit, Gilbert will be leading 145 citizen soldiers into the fields of Iraq to aid in the reconstruction of the battle-torn country. The National Guard, often referred to as “volunteer Army,” is comprised of citizen soldiers who serve their country in military capacities on what has been called a “part-time” basis.

Gilbert joined and served two years in the active Army out of high school and entered ROTC and the National Guard while in college at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He graduated in 1993 with a degree in architecture and distinguished military honors.

He embarked into private industry, designing churches, schools, government and office buildings, and residences, and came back to UNC Charlotte in 2002 as design manager in Engineering Services. After a 2002 deployment, he returned to the college as director of Facility Planning was promoted into his current position in August 2004.

Since joining the National Guard, Gilbert has been a lot of places. He has seen duty in Panama, Ecuador, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Alaska, and Germany, most of which were nation-building operations. His last deployment in 2002 was to serve in Operation Noble Eagle, a one-year service to provide force protection at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, just months after 9-11.

While the Fort Meade assignment was in the domestic U.S., Gilbert says, “In some respects, our battalion might as well have been out of the country. Family did not accompany our soldiers to Fort Meade.”

Gilbert’s wife Sharon and his daughter Christine, now 9 years old, wait patiently each time he must leave to serve his country. He remembers, “The last time I was gone for a year, my daughter was just seven, and I missed a lot in that year. She remembers the time I was gone, and so is having a little bit of a hard time with the thought of my leaving.”

 

Different Perspective

National Guardsmen have a unique experience when it comes time to serve. While families of the active Army live on bases with an entrenched support system, guardsmen come from a wide region and the experience, both the joys and the hardships, are more difficult to share with peers. Comments Gilbert, “Paula Dale, who handles our family support, does a miraculous job making sure that family support is where it needs to be. Sometimes there are rumors that need to be dispelled, questions that need answered, and needs to be fulfilled. This support is vital not only to our families left behind, but also the mission itself. A soldier cannot focus if his family isn’t cared for, and we need the support of our families when we are away from them.”

The once-a-month training that guardsmen commit to is also different from active military service. Explains Gilbert, “In the regular Army, PT (physical training) is part of your daily work schedule. For guardsmen, it is our responsibility to stay in shape, to stay plugged in, and to make all the preparations that are needed for that one weekend. It is more involved than the impression some have of ‘the weekend warrior.’”

Many camps believe with the world stage evolving as it has, the lines between regular and reservists have become more blurred. After the draft ended in 1973, reservists became a more integral part of the military system. Prejudices that may have existed between the two camps on a battlefield several years ago are diminishing, with each gaining a deepening appreciation for one another. Gilbert says that currently over 50 percent of those that have served abroad are national guardsmen and reservists.

He adds, “Our demographic is on average older than the active Army, so we bring a different level of skill sets.”

Gilbert explains that there is one overwhelmingly unique feature of guardsmen that contributes heavily to the progress of nation building: “As a civilian, we have training in our day jobs that really helps to augment the proficiencies of the active Army. In my company there are state troopers, construction workers and engineers, educators, architects, entrepreneurs – each with some expertise they bring to the table in addition to military training. By using this cross section of society, we are able to solve problems in creative and responsive ways.”

 

Moving Mountains

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Battalion Combat (Heavy) is a designation “assigned to an engineer brigade within a corps or theater Army. It has equipment and personnel skilled in earthmoving or construction. Missions include the construction of roads, airfields, structures and utilities for the Army and Air Force.”

Of his mission, Gilbert suspects it will involve a lot of wood frame construction, electrical work, and possibly building roads and defenses. Perhaps one of the battalion’s stickiest duties could be road repair on MSR’s (main supply routes) that litter the news with reports of hostile fire. Comments Gilbert, “But you never know. Anything that can be classified as engineering we will do, whether it is erecting a structure or changing a light bulb.”

One of the keys to the National Guard is versatility in skills and leadership. Gilbert says, “There is a huge demand to think outside of the box. We think of every application of a soldier’s skill set, and empower those with various specialties to help find an optimal solution.” He adds, “As a leader, it is very important to both be able to delegate and to make quick decisions. It is not about how I think something needs to be done; it is about being flexible and getting the job done right and on time. There is a lot of trust involved. Final accountability always runs upward.”

One could make the argument that accountability also runs outward. As more and more guardsmen and reservists are called into theater, their absence from industry becomes more and more palpable. Professional careers come to a halt, job site personnel thins, and the self-employed families struggle to make ends meet while their breadwinners are away.

Says Gilbert, “It is not easy for employers to lose their employees for two to three weeks a year, much less for a long deployment. I guess the one thing that we all ask is the support of our employers while we are called to duty.”

Gilbert says his employers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have been very supportive and understanding. However, he explains that the university is a state-run entity and that many private companies might take the hit harder.

The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”) protects the individual’s right to reinstatement of position and benefits while on duty for up to five years at a time. While employers are not required to pay a soldier on uniformed leave, many choose to pay the difference between an individual’s regular pay and military earnings, while some choose to pay his salary in full for a designated period of time.

Says Gilbert, “We know it is hard for employers. We just ask that folks who are called to serve not be penalized for honoring that call. It is not a vacation by any means, and a soldier should not be asked to take vacation time to train or to serve our country.”

When asked if he has any ideas about making the sacrifice easier for employers, he does have a suggestion: “Redundancy and cross-training are very viable ways to assure an organization is prepared for a reservist’s deployment.”

 

Missed in Action

Anybody who works close to Chris Gilbert at the university knows him for his affability, his commitment, and for performing admirably at a newly created and demanding position with the Charlotte Research Institute, which has developed into a highly efficient model of partnering industry and education to power the region’s economic engine. It is a forgone conclusion that he will be missed when he is away.

Comments UNCC Chancellor Jim Woodward, “I am very proud of Chris, both for the work he has done with the university and for his decision to serve. He is a dedicated professional who has never been assigned a task he did not complete in full. We plan on keeping in contact with him in his absence, and look forward to him rejoining us upon his return.”

At the time of this writing, reports on the nation building efforts, much like public opinions concerning Iraq, are mixed. But generally, progress appears to be grudgingly unfurling, much like a crusty old papyrus. Irrigation systems and electrical grids appear to be cropping up after being destroyed during the regime change, and these are things that don’t happen with the passage of time alone. The blood, sweat and tears of men and women who have had to leave their families, homes and jobs in the interest of helping their fellow soldiers, serving their country, and securing the ideals of democracy have made that happen.

No matter how you feel about the war, this fact is inarguable. And, in the case of National Guardsman fighting alongside their esteemed Army brothers, they are not only our nation’s finest in the sense of soldiering, they are also our nation’s finest workers, families and community leaders.

For his part, Gilbert says, “I feel very confident that Bravo Company and the rest of the 505th Engineer Combat Battalion is ready and more than capable to succeed in this mission. We have trained hard and are ready to give it all we have.”

About the emotions involved in leaving home for the dangers ahead, he says, “My unit has a very high morale and a strong sense of duty. They care about the mission and we all want to do a good job and get back home. We can take solace in the fact that there is a lot to do and we will be very busy, which obviously helps the time go by faster.”

The 505th Engineering Battalion Combat Heavy will dispatch to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, on the 5th of August. The units are scheduled for deployment to Iraq some time in October.

After offering to buy me another cup of coffee before getting back to work, Chris Gilbert smiles and looks pretty darned ready to do what is asked of him. Whether that means going back to his office at the university to help grow Charlotte’s future, or jump on a plane to Iraq to help someone else’s.

The motto of the Army Engineering Corps appears particularly fitting at this moment: “ESSAYONS”! (Let Us Try!)

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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