The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Reservists find smooth transition, plenty of work

Wednesday, March 26, 1997, 0:00
Section: Bosnia,Journalism

The Potomac NewsThis story originally appeared in The Potomac News.

The chaos in the former Yugoslavia has disrupted more than just the lives of the natives of the strife-torn region.

There are hundreds of U.S. Army Reservists and members of the Army National Guard at staging bases in Hungary, and even more at bases worldwide — including more than 2,000 in Germany — taking the place of full-time soldiers deployed to Bosnia. Another 938 reservists are among the 8,500 American troops stationed in Bosnia.

Since the U.S. military joined the multi-national peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in December 1995, 11,700 reservists and Guardsmen have left their civilian jobs to take up arms and do their part.

(In comparison, the 84,990 Army Reservists made up one third of the force deployed in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and 1,223 reservists were deployed in Haiti, less than one-twelfth the entire fighting force.)

If there’s a difference between the reservists and full-time soldiers in Bosnia, it would be difficult to tell by looking. In the U.S. military bases around Bosnia, the reservists are a smoothly turning cog in the Army machine.

And that’s just how the U.S. Army likes it.

“If you’re in the Army Reserves, the question isn’t if you’re going to go, it’s when you’re going to go,” said Maj. Jerry Sullivan, in the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve at the Pentagon.

Part of the reason so many reservists have been called to active duty is because of the different skills needed by an army in the field.

“Increasingly, the Army Reserve has become either the primary source or the sole source of different specialties the Army needs when they deploy,” Sullivan said.

In Bosnia, that includes specialists in water purification, railways, who are needed to help rebuild Bosnia’s shattered infrastructure and other specialists, in psychological operations, civil affairs and public affairs, who deal with politics, refugees and the media.

“We are the Army’s capability,” Sullivan said, “And when the Army goes somewhere, chances are, we’re going, too.”

Ironically, these soldiers are seeing more action in the field now that the Cold War has ended than their fathers could ever have seen.

“When there was a Cold War, the times we actually deployed for ‘real world missions’ was almost none,” Sullivan said. The last few years have included peace-keeping missions to Haiti and Somalia, where non-combatant skills proved invaluable.

“We’ve deployed more over the past seven years than we did during the entire Cold War,” Sullivan said.

By law, employers are required to hold the jobs for employees temporarily on leave as part of a military deployment and “by and large,” Sullivan said,”employers have been supportive.”

Of course, the reservist — who typically has weeks, if not months, of advance warning — has to meet the employer half-way.

“When it’s gone to court,” Sullivan said, “They haven’t looked too favorably on soldiers who, 15 minutes before quitting time, said ‘hey, I’m gonna be taking off for the next few weeks.'”

It’s more than a few weeks: Reservists are typically away from home for an initial hitch of 180 days, with the possiblility of another 90-day extension. These times aren’t precise, though: Dates shift as different units overlap with the ones they replace, to allow for training, and transportation is always dependent on what is available.

For local reservists, the transition from daily life in Northern Virginia to living on-base in Bosnia has been a relatively smooth one.

“From our perspective, there were one or two hitches at the very beginning, but those seem to have worked themselves out,” Sullivan said. “And now the operation is fairly smooth-running.”

Part of the reason may be Maj. Jay Greeley, of Leesburg. Based at Task Force Eagle Base in Tuzla, he’s the Reserve Component liaison who helps smooth over the rougher transitions.

“If you wanted to label it, I run a help desk. I get 20 phone calls a day, 20 walk-ins a day,” Greeley said.

Although most soldiers’ transitions are smooth, there are always one or two reservists whose families aren’t receiving pay checks, or employees worried about whether or not their jobs will actually be secure when they get back home.

It keeps Greeley hopping, seven days a week, often two eight-hour shifts a day.

“The biggest thing to worry about is you don’t get burned-out. You could work all day, all night, doing things that haven’t been done,” he said.

Reservists — who train at least 39 days a year — say they were well-prepared for soldiering in Bosnia. They spend two weeks stateside, going through a battery of physicals, skills tests, practice sessions and information on the Bosnian rules of engagement before being shipped to the Intermediate Staging Base in Taszar, Hungary, where they go through another round of preparation before being sent to Bosnia.

And just because the reservists have civilian jobs and lives, they don’t necessarily have less military experience.

“We’ve got a good cross-section of people with active-duty experience, combat experience,” said Capt. John Mills of Dumfries. He himself was in the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and he’s been in Bosnia since January.

A contract specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration in his civilian life, Mills’ Psychological Operations reserve unit produces news about the peace process and rebuilding for the Bosnian population, which otherwise makes do with heavily slanted partisan media or no information at all.

The FAA was very supportive of his deployment, Mills said, and he keeps in touch with his office with almost-daily e-mail communication.

Greeley himself is a reservist, a functions analyst for Boeing in Tysons Corner. The company is sensitive to the needs of reservists, he said. Although it has to give him only 10 days leave by law, he’ll have his old job waiting for him when he returns in the fall.

He’s got a full life back in Virginia, with a wife and three sons, whom he1s eager to be reunited with upon his October return stateside.

“Oh yeah, I’ll be ready. But by the same token, this is important,” Greeley said. “And this is kind of like my last hurrah. I expect to retire when I get back.”

Beyond shifting gears from their civilian to military jobs, reservists have to make other adjustments.

“It’s so funny: You live back in the States, you have to have this nice car and house,” Mills said, sitting near his cot and footlocker. Photos of family and friends in nearby frames and a copy of “The Indigo Bunting,” a collection of Potomac News columns by Mills’ pastor, the Rev. Charlie Chilton, are the only things that personalize his living area and link him to life back in Dumfries. “But this here is my domain and I’m satisfied.”

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