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February 1, 2003

Citizen Soldiers Leave Big Gaps on Home Front


ALBUQUERQUE, Jan. 30 — The printout of names on Sheriff Darren P. White's desk is his official worry list. Eleven have big red letters after them: Deployed.

The newly elected sheriff of Bernalillo County, Mr. White fears a personnel crisis in his first weeks on the job. About 10 percent of his 260 deputies belong to Reserve or National Guard forces. With the Pentagon mobilizing troops for a possible war against Iraq, the sheriff's roster is being depleted weekly.

"At this rate, we will have lost 25 by March," said Mr. White, who added deputy No. 11, a cadet, to the red column on Monday. "It is not that we don't want our people activated; these are the type of people you want serving your country in this difficult time. But it is too much for us to absorb. We don't see any end in sight."

All across the United States, the call-up of reservists and National Guard members is carving big holes in the towns and cities they leave behind. The heartache of families separating, a familiar ritual of military service, is being compounded by the community upheaval associated with a second major mobilization of citizen soldiers in as many years.

Doctors. Nurses. Police officers. Firefighters. Lawyers. Teachers. Clerks. Cashiers. Mechanics. Truck drivers. Even mayors and school board members. All going or gone.

By the Department of Defense's count this week, nearly 95,000 have reported to active duty.

"I believe very much in community service, in national service," said Joe Rice, 35, the mayor of Glendale, Colo., who was headed this week for an undisclosed destination with his Army Reserve unit. "Typically you could do both. But now you have to choose one over the other."

Some Reserve and National Guard forces, activated after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not return home until several months ago. Now they face the prospect of another call-up of uncertain duration — unlike their typical annual two weeks of service. Many of them had also been mobilized in the Persian Gulf war, but they view this assignment more ominously because of the real threat of terrorism back home.

"We used to fight our wars only in foreign lands, but it is not so anymore," said Tech. Sgt. Gary L. Brock, 32, an Air Force reservist from Lufkin, Tex., where he works as a prison guard. "I worry more about my family right here than about me over there. I know I am going to protect myself. But my kid is 10 years old. He can't protect himself. And my wife, too."

Even the routine of getting inoculations and military equipment fitted before a deployment carries different meaning this time. Ramona Jennings, a Navy reservist who is a detective with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, got an anthrax vaccination last weekend. Though she has received no official order to mobilize, she was given a briefing on Bahrain and advised to get her personal affairs in order.

Detective Jennings's arm was in such pain this week from the shot that she could barely lift it. Her boss insisted she see a doctor, but her thoughts were on her fiancé, Robert Bolin, also a detective, who will remain behind, watching after their house and caring for their rabbit, three dogs and three cats. With war looming, their wedding has been indefinitely postponed.

"A sailor asked me, `How do you feel knowing that you would live but your fiancé would die?' " Detective Jennings, 32, said of a possible anthrax attack on the United States. "That is devastating to think about. The realization of going to war is slapping people on the side of the head."

In Goodland, Kan., residents lost their only Spanish-speaking doctor — and the town's sole woman practitioner — when Dr. Natalie Griego was activated by the Army National Guard. In addition to saying goodbye to her husband and her 22-month-old son, Dr. Griego left behind hundreds of distraught patients, including many expectant mothers.

She saw about 25 patients daily at Rural Health Ventures, the clinic where she worked with two other physicians, and she also saw patients in a hospital, a nursing home and a facility for the mentally handicapped. Shawna Blanka, 32, of St. Francis, Kan., had been driving 45 miles for her prenatal care. Mrs. Blanka is eight months pregnant.

"When I first found out she was leaving, I just wanted to cry, to be honest," Mrs. Blanka said. "I've been a little stressed over it, and this is not a good time to be stressed either."

Dr. Griego was given only 24 hours' notice to report for duty, yet more than 200 people gathered in Goodland for a farewell party. "For the last two days, I couldn't talk without crying," Dr. Griego, 37, who is a captain in a medical battalion, said at a deployment ceremony in Montrose, Colo. "I feel proud to be serving my country, but that doesn't make it any easier."

Here in Albuquerque, the loss of deputies is so worrying to Sheriff White that he has asked the New Mexico Legislature to add an emergency "wartime clause" to the state's retirement law so that he can fill the gaps on his staff with retired police officers. Right now, retired law enforcement employees lose their pension benefits if they make more than $15,000 in a year.

"It is a changing time," Mr. White said. "We all are going to have to rearrange the way we do business. There are definitely issues that need to be discussed when things calm down."

The problems associated with the stepped-up mobilizations are particularly acute for law enforcement. Just as their ranks are being depleted, local authorities are being asked to take on new responsibilities related to domestic security. At the same time, many police and sheriff departments are already well below their authorized staffing levels because of longstanding recruitment difficulties.

A random survey of law enforcement agencies conducted last fall by the Police Executive Research Forum, an association of police chiefs, found that 44 percent of them had lost personnel to the military mobilizations, said Gerard R. Murphy, a senior research associate with the organization. "One of the problems is that the agencies don't know when these people will return," Mr. Murphy said.

In Pierce County, Wash., an audit in 2001 determined that the sheriff's department needed to add 60 more deputies to its force of 375. Two years later, that goal has not been met. With as many as 10 percent of his deputies eligible to be called up by the Reserve or National Guard, Sheriff Paul Pastor said he was being forced to "de-prioritize" some objectives.

"The tricky thing here is, if it is true that we are engaged in an era where infinite destruction is directed at domestic targets in terrorist warfare, the people who protect those targets are wearing local badges," Mr. Pastor said.

With the consequences so great, leaving law enforcement jobs has not been easy for many of those being mobilized. Enrique Hernandez, a patrol officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, is among five officers in the Rampart Division expected to ship out in the coming weeks. The department is looking to its own police reserves to fill the gaps, but with mixed results.

"They can't really afford to have us leave, but if you have to do it, you do it," Officer Hernandez said.

At Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Master Sgt. Kevin W. Bleffert, 37, a sheriff's deputy, has been on active duty since getting a phone call while on a fly-fishing vacation in Wyoming in September 2001. The mobilization has forced him to cancel regular vacations with two of his children from a previous marriage. As the likelihood of his unit being sent overseas increases, his 13-year-old daughter has confronted him about his military service.

"She asked, `Why do you have to go?' " Sergeant Bleffert said. "I said, `If not me, who else? If it is O.K. for someone else's dad to do it, why not yours?' "

Across the country, in Pensacola, Fla., Gary Bergosh was running a similar conversation through his mind as his wife made videotapes of him for their 1-year-old son, Alex, whom they adopted from Russia.

"It is tough leaving Alex after all we went through to get him," said Mr. Bergosh, 35, a reservist with the Marine Corps. "While it's inconvenient, I want to set a good example for my son. If I was not willing to do this, how could I expect my son or anybody else's son to answer our country's call?"

That sort of patriotism and sense of duty seem to be salve on the wounds of mobilizations everywhere, both for the citizen soldiers themselves and for the communities and families feeling their absence.

Dr. Thomas Coburn, 48, of Fort Collins, Colo., was in the middle of conducting a medical exam when he received notice of his call-up. As tough as it was to drop everything, he says, there was no doubt in his mind what he needed to do. He told his patient he would be leaving.

"I got a shocked look and a `good luck' and that was it," Dr. Coburn said.

In New Mexico, a group of car dealers has raised $430,000 to supplement the incomes of those hit hardest financially by the mobilizations in that state. Their program, Operation Home Front, has already dispensed about $180,000 to reservists and National Guard members whose salaries have dropped significantly.

"Sept. 11 has absolutely pulled the patriotism out of people's hearts," said Charles R. Henson, president of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association. "We got one donation from a Vietnam vet and his wife, who sent $10. He said, `I wish someone had done that for us when I was in Vietnam.' "

Communities have been rallying around their citizen soldiers in other ways, too.

Edward M. Martinez and his wife, Teri, a first-grade teacher in Albuquerque, have leaned on Mrs. Martinez's fellow teachers to help fill the void created by Mr. Martinez's long absences. Mr. Martinez, 34, who is a sergeant in the Air National Guard, has worked at Kirtland Air Force Base since returning from five months in Oman last March. He has been able to spend nights at home, but with the hundreds of troops deploying around him, he suspects his time to go again will come soon.

With two young sons, the Martinezes spent one night this week talking through the trade-offs that come with being on call for war. It was an emotional conversation, but by the end of the evening, they agreed that Mr. Martinez should re-enlist for another five years. Mrs. Martinez, 32, said her husband would not be whole if he stepped away from military service now.

"He needs to do this for his country," said William Martinez, the couple's 8-year-old son.

Similar family meetings are taking place in living rooms across America. In Atlanta, Angie Curtis, 31, an Army reservist and former high school teacher, worries that her 2-year-old son, Kyle, might forget her. Her husband, Mike, 33, has stepped in to help make the separation easier. "It's not that I don't want to go," she said, tears in her eyes.

Mrs. Curtis has been filling a notebook for her husband with how-tos about their son — clothing sizes, the Tylenol dosage, a recipe for his favorite chicken casserole. She has scheduled an appointment with a lawyer to prepare a will. And she is helping her husband interview prospective baby sitters. "He's trying to be strong," she said.

Mr. Curtis said he planned to build an addition to the garage. "You have to focus on something or the rest of this will kind of eat you up," he said.

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