City, county lose members to military callups

By Thomas Wilson and Abby Morris

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com,
amorris@starhq.com


     Area law enforcement officers, along with firefighters and other city employees, have begun to serve the citizens of Elizabethton and Carter County in another way and more may follow them.
     The Carter County Sheriff's Department and Elizabethton Police Department, along with the Elizabethton Fire Department and City of Elizabethton, each have employees who are members of the National Guard or other military reserve units. Some of these agencies have already lost employees who have been called to active duty and more activations are expected.
     The Elizabethton Police Department has already seen one police officer called to duty. PTL Richard Haney is a member of the 776th Maintenance Company, which was activated for duty last week. More members of the department may also be activated. "I have one in the Marine reserves, Sgt. Brian Fraley, and one in the Navy reserves, Officer Jesus Pena," said EPD Chief Roger Deal. "Obviously it will affect staffing, but we will deal with that."
     Elizabethton firefighter Dennis Erwin is also a member of the 776th Maintenance Company, which was activated for duty last week and firefighter Andy Wetzel serves with the U.S. Marines.
     The fire department's 30 firefighters and three administrators man three fire stations around the clock. Lost personnel spreads the department thin, said Fire Chief Mike Shouse.
     "We are going to sit down and evaluate where we are with policy and personnel," said Shouse. "We have been hit with everything from regular attrition to injuries."
     In addition to Guard callups, one city firefighter recently retired while a second put his retirement on hold until Guard members return from duty.
     "What makes it so hard when you lose people in this situation is, we don't know for how long," said Shouse. "It's hard to plan your day-to-day routine."
     Current Elizabethton Fire Marshal Barry Carrier served as commanding officer of the 776th when the unit was activated in 1990 for Operation Desert Shield.
     Four members of the Carter County Sheriff's Department belong to Guard and Reserve units, said Sheriff John Henson. The department's second in command, Capt. James Parrish, is already on active duty with his South Carolina-based Reserve unit. He was activated approximately three weeks ago, according to Henson.
     Investigator Chris Pierce belongs to the 776th Maintenance Company, while Sgt. Sean P. Johnson serves with the U.S. Marine Reserves in Johnson City.
     "I don't know right now if I'm going to lose all four, but there's a good chance I could," said Henson. "I hope it is resolved peacefully, but honestly, we don't expect that to happen."
     Henson said he hoped to hire temporary officers to fill the losses in his department. "(Losing officers) will affect us, we've barely got enough to do as it is," he said.
     He said he would pursue allocating salary money used for the regular officers to pay temporary employees brought on board.
     "I wish the best for the guys," said Henson. "They have my full support for what they are doing."
     Some of the county's volunteer fire departments will be affected as well. According to Hampton-Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department Chief Johnny Isaacs, the department saw two of its members called to duty with the 776th. "It may affect us a little, but not much," Isaacs said. "I don't think it will be noticeable."
     City manager Charles Stahl said he experienced a similar situation during the Gulf War in 1991 when he was the city manager of Bluefield, West Va.
     "The Gulf War was a new experience for the municipalities with employees in the Guard and Reserves," said Stahl. "Since 1991, I think due to better information from the federal government, local governments are better prepared to answer questions for their employees."
     Elizabethton City Schools have not escaped the callup with three system employees who belong to Guard and Reserve units.
     Gerald Jenkins, who teaches physical education at East Side Elementary, is a member of the 776th.
     "We hold the position open for him, but we will have to fill that position with a substitute until we can find another certified person," said director of schools, Dr. Judy Blevins.
     Once activated, Guard and Reserve members become full-time federal employees receiving pay on a federal salary scale with benefits that extend to immediate family members.
     The Uniformed Services Employee and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 provides job protection and rights of reinstatement to employees in the private and public sectors who participate in the National Guard and military Reserves.
     There is a 5-year cumulative limit on the amount of voluntary military service leave an employee can use and still retain reemployment rights, according to USERRA.
     Employers can not by law refuse to allow an employee to attend scheduled drills and annual training.
     Employees may return to work at the beginning of the next scheduled work period following 30 days of active military service. An application for reinstatement must be submitted no later than 14 days after completing active duty of between 31 to 180 days. The law gives employees with over six months of active service up to 90 days to reapply to their jobs after completion of military duty.
     If an employee is injured or disabled during military duty, the reinstatement deadline may be extended up to two years.