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Editorial: Employer support critical for ‘citizen warriors’ in Guard, Reserves

Unlike one of his office’s prized investigators, public defender Thomas Estes won’t don a military uniform for the next year. He won’t risk his life in a place of the world, Afghanistan, that last weekend claimed its 2,000th American military life.

And he won’t be away from his family over the holidays.

But that shouldn’t diminish the supportive role Estes and other employers are playing at a time in our country when the military continues to rely heavily on employees who double as members of the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserves.

When faced with the prospect of losing, for the next 12 months, one of the top investigators at the public defender’s office he runs in Northampton, Estes didn’t simply take steps to fill the void with another employee.

Instead, he lent his support to the trusted employee, Angel Rodriguez, a member of the Guard who will uproot his life and spend the next year in Afghanistan. Estes OK’d flexible schedules, gave Rodriguez time off before his deployment so he could complete three months’ training and made countless smaller gestures.

The support touched Rodriguez, who secretly nominated Estes for a Patriot Award from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program. The award has special meaning because Guard and Reserve members nominate their own employers. Last year, about 16,500 employers were recognized nationwide for supporting their employees who were called to serve, even though that service makes running their own enterprises difficult.

It’s against federal law for employers to penalize service members because of their military service under the terms of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The law is necessary to the country’s national security, especially at a time when almost half of the nation’s military strength resides in the Guard and Reserve.

But that doesn’t mean everyone complies.

Fostering a culture of employer support is critical. That’s why it’s important to recognize employers like Estes.

As Earl Bonett, vice chairman of the state Guard and Reserves, said when presenting Estes the award last month: “As a boss, you are also serving when you support him.”

Estes and others should be commended for offering such support and seeing the value in it even after 10 years of sustained military operations and during the country’s more recent volatile economic climate.

The Department of Defense agency that administers the Patriot Award program says that without such support, and continued civilian employment for themselves and their families, “citizen warriors” could not defend and protect us at home and abroad.

Though Estes is required by law to hold Rodriguez’s job for his return, he’s not obligated to do as much as he’s done. It’s heartening to hear Estes say that the assistance he provided Rodriguez makes him feel less helpless about seeing a trusted employee and friend heading off to serve as a convoy commander in Afghanistan.

Instead of thinking of what losing a seasoned investigator for a year might mean for the department, Estes did what he could to ease Rodriguez’s mind as he prepared to ship out.

“I feel like I am doing something to help,” Estes said.

Amen to that.

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