Call-ups come with complications

For surgeon Carl Danielson, the pride of serving his country with an Army hospital unit is tempered with regrets for the job he left behind. Danielson is an Army reservist at Fort Lewis whose call to duty forced him to suspend his Massachusetts practice and take what he expects to be a 40 percent or more cut in pay.

"I had to lay off one of my office employees, but I'm going to keep my office manager on the payroll for eight hours a week so that there will at least be some human being on the other side of the phone when patients call," Danielson said.

Danielson is one of more than 188,000, including more than 3,000 from Washington state, now on active duty in the United States and overseas as the Pentagon grapples with post-Sept. 11 security and a possible war with Iraq.

While all reservists benefit from a federal law that requires employers to have a job waiting upon their return, there are no guarantees that they won't suffer financial losses and a loss of benefits. And the sacrifices are not spread equally among those ordered to active duty.

For some, call-ups can be a financial boon. They might be stuck in low-paying jobs in a down economy and welcome the military pay, medical benefits and a $100-a-day bonus for anyone serving more than 401 days in a two-year period.

And still others suffer no cut in pay because they work for big corporations, including Microsoft and Boeing, that kick in the difference between military and civilian salaries.

But many employers, including smaller companies, find it difficult to afford such benefits. And some larger companies, such as brokerages that offer much of their compensation through commissions, struggle with helping employees who are called up.

Even government agencies fall short in buffering their workers.

King County is an exception, currently paying out an extra $5,000 a month in pay and benefits to each of 35 county employees on active duty.

But cash-strapped Washington state offers no pay differential to state employees called to active duty. And the federal government, while heaping praise on private-sector employers who offer pay differentials, offers no such benefit to its civil-service workers called to active duty.

Self-employed reservists like Danielson, the surgeon now at Fort Lewis, are a relatively small minority of the total pool of citizen soldiers. But they include a lot of the highest-paid reservists in medical professions, as well as small-business owners and small contractors who do construction or offer computer consulting or other services.

For these workers, the call to duty poses special challenges. They must figure out how to pay business debts that continue while they are on active duty. And they must find someone else to take care of their customers, clients or patients.

"My (surgeon) colleagues are all covering for me — but they tell me to hurry back," Danielson said.

Married and with two young children, the 42-year-old Danielson got word on Valentine's Day to report to the 396th Hospital Combat Support Unit at Fort Lewis. Since arriving, Danielson has endured a slow, somewhat frustrating transition to military life as the unit prepares for overseas duty. He sleeps in the barracks, practices putting on gas masks and works out to get in shape. "There's a lot of running and jumping jacks, and it's kind of fun because I could stand to lose a few pounds," Danielson said.

Should the United States invade Iraq, he expects to eventually end up in a field hospital.

Danielson is unsure how long he will serve — perhaps three months, but it could be substantially longer. When Danielson joined the Army Reserve back in 1983, in his second year of medical school, the prospect of a prolonged overseas deployment seemed remote.

But during the past 12 years, the U.S. reliance on reservists has grown as the military waged the Persian Gulf War and later responded to conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and other hot spots. The pace of call-ups began to quicken again after Sept. 11. In Washington state, another 3,300 reservists of the Army National Guard 81st Armored Brigade are on alert for a possible call to active duty, which would bring the total to more than 6,000 — numbers far above those during the 1991 Gulf War.

With so many reservists headed for duty, a lot of businesses and reservists are boning up on the minimum employment protections required by law. That effort is aided by a network of more than 4,100 federal volunteers who belong to the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. Volunteers explain the law, encourage employers to throw in additional support and can also act as ombudsmen to help reservists as they return to civilian life and reclaim their jobs.

Burt Backman, executive director of the Washington volunteer committee, said employer support for state reservists is strong, although some businesses are starting to have concerns about how long their employees may be gone.

Nationally, a 2002 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that much confusion still exists about the laws. Though most employers embrace returning workers, the report also cited complaints — gleaned from surveys and interviews — by reservists who said they were passed over for promotions, denied pay increases or even fired.

The GAO report also noted that students, who make up about one-third of the reservists, suffer from lost tuition, credits and educational standing, and have no special recourse under federal law.

Sharonda Amamilo, for example, is a 37-year-old Army reservist from DuPont, Pierce County, who hoped to graduate from law school at Seattle University in May. But last Monday, she said, she received word that she must report to Fort Dix, N.J., for active duty as a chief warrant officer with an intelligence unit.

Amamilo had already voluntarily served a six-month tour of duty that ended last summer. This time around, she hoped for a delay in her call-up orders so she could take her final exams and graduate. The Army said no.

University officials are trying to see if there is some way she can complete her courses while on active duty. But it is unclear what is possible, and Amamilo fears that when she returns to civilian life she will have to redo her final semester of college at an estimated cost of $8,000.

"I love my country, and I will go anywhere to protect it ... ," Amamilo said. "I just want a little more time to report."

"But I know the drill. My duffel is packed and by the door."

Amamilo is scheduled to leave for Fort Dix tomorrow.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or