Beyond the Call of Duty

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Married to a Reservist, Janet Wright is now coping on half her husband's old salary

The word these days to patients of Las Vegas family practitioner Jeff Brookman is that the doctor is out — not on the golf course but in downtown Baghdad, where the reservist, 53, is a battalion surgeon doing trauma assessment and triage with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "He's three for three," says his wife Monterey, who has been taking his calls and referring his patients elsewhere for the past nine weeks. "First the Gulf War, then Somalia and now Iraq." This time, Monterey says, it has meant a pay cut of about 35%, and it will take months to get the practice going again. But, she acknowledges, that leaves them far better off than many other reserve families.

So much for the cushy life of the weekend warrior. It's a far cry from the Vietnam era, when draft-age sons of privilege (including the current Commander in Chief) sought out spots in the reserves and the National Guard as an alternative to facing combat. These days, 220,000 Guard members and reservists are stationed around the globe in peacekeeping operations, the battle against terrorism, homeland security and now the war in Iraq. Last month an Illinois Guardsman died in an ambush in Afghanistan; so far, at least eight members of the reserves and the National Guard have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And now that the fighting is over, the work is just beginning for reservists, who will provide the bulk of the military manpower for postwar reconstruction — bridge building, restoring utilities, decontamination — and peacekeeping. Deployment may last as long as two years. Some reservists in such sought-after specialties as military police have shipped out two or three times over the past few years.

Special Report: Gulf War II
A look back at the events that led up to the war and the fighting that followed

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties War in Iraq
To be all that they can be can cost them dearly: 41% report that they earn less while deployed than in their civilian jobs, according to the latest Pentagon survey, which predates the massive call-ups that began with 9/11. Employers are required by law to hold their jobs but are not required to make up the difference between what their workers were earning and what the military pays. Some employers do. When Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson learned last fall that about-to-be-activated employee David Rook was being forced to sell his family's dream house, the poultry firm instituted a policy — retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001 — of paying the difference in wages.

But Tyson is the exception. In Pensacola, Fla., Michelle Gale is struggling with the day-to-day challenges of raising eight children on less than half the $80,000 salary her Army reservist husband Randy was earning as a lineman for Sprint. He left three months ago for what could be two years with the 350th Civil Affairs Command in Hungary. Michelle fixed the dryer herself to save the service charge, but then the car broke down. Their savings account has shrunk to $175, and groceries alone cost $800 a month. When Randy asks how things are going, Michelle tries to change the subject. "I hate to tell my husband when he calls how bad things really are," she says.

Not even the Federal Government makes up the difference in pay for the 14,000 or so of its civilian employees who have been called up — a situation that Senators Dick Durbin, Mary Landrieu and Barbara Mikulski are seeking to rectify in recently introduced legislation. Landrieu is also fighting to give a tax break to companies that supplement the military pay of their workers while they are on active duty. And Senator (and presidential contender) John Edwards has introduced legislation to suspend interest on the student loans of activated reservists as well as to expand day-care services for their children.

A smaller paycheck is just the beginning of the adjustment for many families. Some live too far from a military base to take easy advantage of the benefits of military life. In Hammond, La., if Janet Wright wants to save on tax-free groceries at a military commissary while her husband serves in California, she has to load a cooler into her car and drive at least an hour. "What you save in tax-free," she says with a sigh, "you've just spent in gas." The families of activated reservists qualify for the same health plan as active-duty families, but that can mean finding new doctors and learning to navigate yet another bureaucracy. Their creditors' employees are not always aware that the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act requires interest rates to be reduced to 6% for deployed reservists. Monica Dana of Long Island, N.Y., the wife of a reservist deployed in the gulf, has been waiting five months for Capital One to retroactively reduce its credit-card rate from 15.9% — even after a lawyer for the reserves sent a stern letter three months ago warning the company that failure to do so is "a federal crime and a civil wrong." By contrast, some financial institutions — among them, Citibank — are forgiving all interest, minimum payments and fees for cardholders on active duty.

The spouse left behind often faces an anguished choice: work more, to help ease the financial burden, or less, to help ease the emotional one. Barry Esteves has been in Afghanistan with the National Guard military police for three months, but in West Boylston, Mass., his daughter Melanie, 8, told her mother, "It feels like Daddy died." Mindy Esteves decided to leave the beauty salon where she had worked for 14 years, and she found a job at which she could put in fewer hours on a more flexible schedule.

Small businesses are also feeling the stress. When National Guardsman Robert Harrington, 43, was called up in March, Roy Harrington lost more than just his son; he lost half his two-man staff at Roy's Repair Service in Clinton, Iowa. The elder Harrington doesn't know how to work the computerized diagnostic equipment in his shop, so he will have to cut back significantly on the jobs he takes.

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