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Reservists Answer Call to Duty

Citizen-soldiers are bracing for extended absences from their homes and jobs.

March 02, 2003|Marla Dickerson and Mike Anton | Times Staff Writers

As military reservists are being called to duty for the brewing conflict with Iraq, attorney Shelia Bryant-Tucker's small law firm is about to lose a key employee: her.

A lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, she is set to ship out to Hawaii today, leaving plenty of unfinished business at her Oceanside office. Although she has become accustomed to being called up more often in recent years -- she served two months on special assignment last summer -- Bryant-Tucker worries that a prolonged absence could ruin her solo family-law practice, not to mention put strains on her own family.

Jeff Brookman doesn't know when he'll get back home to Las Vegas, but he knows that when he does, he'll have to rebuild his medical practice.

"It's going to be a huge financial sacrifice, but it's one that I'm willing to make," said the 53-year-old family practitioner, who is a captain in the Naval Reserve and has been in uniform since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As the nation mobilizes for a possible war in Iraq, the call-up of thousands of reservists such as Bryant-Tucker and Brookman underscores the realities of today's citizen-soldiers: The adage of "two weeks in the summer and one weekend a month" no longer applies.

Of the 168,000 members of the National Guard and reserves who are currently mobilized, about 13,000 have been on active duty for at least a year. Many others, having served more frequently in recent years and for longer stretches to support military operations around the world, are now bracing for assignments that could last up to two years, and in rare cases even longer.

The increased duration of service partly reflects the uncertainty of a war that includes training for domestic terrorist attacks and preparing for potential warfare on two fronts overseas. It also underscores the vital part that reservists are playing in a military that has about 30% fewer regular members than it did a decade ago.

The nation's 1.3 million guardsmen and reservists now account for half of the country's fighting strength and have participated in missions including Cuba and Kosovo over the last decade.

Another measure of the increased role of reservists: In the early '90s, citizen-soldiers contributed about 1 million duty days a year in support of the active force. That has climbed to about 13 million duty days a year.

"The reserves of today are not the same reserve program of the Gulf War period and before that," said Col. Alan Smith, ombudsman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department agency that assists reserves and those who employ them. "When you take a slash of manpower ... something has got to fill that gap."

The Pentagon has said that it could call up more than 250,000 reservists in all, which would represent the largest deployment since the Persian Gulf War.

For reservists, their families and their employers, that means an expanded commitment to the nation's defense -- and sacrifices.

Jon Barter, a construction superintendent from Spokane, Wash., is assigned to the same unit as Capt. Brookman: the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment. Known as the 2/23, the force of 1,000 was called to active duty at Camp Pendleton soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In December, just days before the unit was expected to be deactivated, the Marines were told they instead would be joining the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, a likely combat assignment if America attacks Iraq.

"We were told we were going home," said Sgt. Maj. Barter, 40. "We had already sent the college students back to school. Two days later, we got the call extending our activation. We called them all back. That was very difficult for them. They had already made a mental chop from it, and now here they were, back again. I feel like that too sometimes."

Barter has been able to fly home to see his family only four times since he was called up more than a year ago. "Being away from my family -- that's been hard for me," he said.

Still, Barter is eager to go to the Middle East. In a Marine career that spans 23 years, he has never been in combat.

"This is a box that I need to check off," he said.

As more reservists such as Barter are being drawn from corporate or managerial ranks, employers also are grappling with the new uncertainties presented by reservists' increasingly active role in the nation's defense.

Military officials say most U.S. companies are cooperating during a critical time in the nation's history. Federal law forbids employers from discriminating against reservists when hiring or firing. And it requires them to grant reservists unpaid leave to serve their country and to take them back when their military stint is up. Of course, that was a whole lot easier in the past, when the call-ups amounted to just a few weeks a year.

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