By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 28, 2008 - Soldiers serving in the Army Reserve long had the stigma of being second-class soldiers. "Be all you can be ... one weekend a month," was a taunt used by drill sergeants for reservist recruits. A transformation in the role of the Reserve and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make frequent deployments a reality for these "weekend warriors," and many reservists are looking at their part-time service more as a second career.
"It's good to have the Reserve as a cushion, a back-up in case somethinggoes wrong. I don't have a 40-hour a week job to go back to," said Sgt.John Coogen of the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, currently stationed here.
After completing an 8-year stint in the Marine Corps, Coogen enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2006. In his civilian career, he is a self-employed audio-visual technician back home in Palm Springs, Calif., mostly installing home theaters.
"If I would have had that going strong, I wouldn't have signed up for the Army Reserve. The military's always a good thing to go into, Reserve, active (duty), it doesn't matter. The economy is really bad back home now. My buddies back at home, doing the same thing I do, they're not making it," he said.
Though Coogen plans to resume his business when he redeploys in early 2009, he is also hedging his bets. After seeing the kinds of income his civilian counterparts are making in Iraq, he's applying for a job as a contractor, perhaps to return here.
Like many of the soldiers in his unit, Coogen has civilian job skills that make him an asset to the Army.
"A Reserve battalion has more skill-sets than an active (duty) battalion. We've got cops, firefighters, veterinarians," said Coogen. Those valuable skills also make soldiers in civil affairs, like in some other Reserve units, more likely to be deployed.
"It's made a tremendous difference, I think, in the lives of reservists as a whole, especially in the civil affairs and (psychological operations) areas," said Maj. David Cothran, operations mobilization officer for Multi-National Corps - Iraq's Army Reserve Affairs office.
"Those guys are deploying, some of them almost every year. Some of them are in the deployment cycle every two or three years, even though the (regeneration cycle) is once every five years for an Army reservist. Those guys are not fitting that cycle. They have to constantly be utilized."
Despite the increasing likelihood and pace of deployments, Cothran said the worsening economy back home is an incentive for many soldiers to stay in the Reserve. Many see the potential for retirement benefits, as well as new GI Bill.
Cothran, a full-time Reserve Soldier, plans to stay in the service and has already signed up to extend his current deployment by another year.
"I think people are taking a hard look at that. I got laid off in '03, and I've been doing active duty as a reservist since then. It's been working out fine, so I've decided to stay with it as long as I can," he said. "I think people are going to continue to look at it and see how hard it's going to be on the Family overall but still stay with it because they've invested so many years."
The role played by Reservists changed greatly in recent years, from a force of mostly prior-service Soldiers who rarely deploy to a highly-trained, agile force who now deploy alongside their active duty counterparts. When the Reserve celebrated its hundredth birthday in April, more than 182,000 Reservists had been called to active duty since 9-11, with more than 41,000 mobilized more than once.
Now mostly focused on combat support, many Reserve units have capabilities either exclusive to or primarily in the Reserve. As a result, more than 1,400 reservists were stopped-lossed at the end of Sept. 2008, a reduction from recent years.
Cothran said the strain of increased deployments has led to problems in retaining junior officers, who still must find time to maintain their training between deployments. For enlisted reservists, however, retention numbers are up, partly due to large bonuses offered for re-enlistment. The numbers are so good that bonuses will be scaled back in the coming year.
One reservist who opted for a large bonus to stay in the Reserve is Staff Sgt. Nick Minecci, a historian with the 317th Military History Detachment. Minecci came back to serve after 12 years of active duty, having already deployed several times.
Minecci is now serving his third deployment as a reservist; upon completing his most recent tour, he extended for another full year. Fortunately, he said, he has the support
of his wife and his family
"She said, 'I knew when I married you, this is what you do. Even though you're a reservist, I know you're going to be deploying,'" Minecci said.
Building financial security is an incentive, but before he decided to re-enlist and extend his tour, Minecci said he had doubts about remaining in the service.
"I think it's harder on them than it is for me in a lot of ways," he said. "It's been terrible. I didn't marry her to be gone, but these couple of years now of serious hardship and pain sets us up for success a decade from now," he said.
Minecci said his decision to stay in was based more on his sense of duty than financial incentive, though. He makes close to the same money deployed as in his civilian job in the U.S. Dept. of State. Like many older reservists, he sees deployment more as an opportunity to serve than a sacrifice. Some deployed reservists don't mind even taking a pay cut to serve their country for a year.
That was the case for Staff Sgt. Ralph Cleveland, who also serves with the 445th CA Bn. Back home in Sacramento, Calif., he owns an information security consulting business. He served four years of active duty in the 80's and Cleveland re-enlisted last year after taking his daughter to talk to a recruiter. He's now finishing his first tour of duty since joining 23 years ago.
"I knew (the deployment) would come up. I was in about 10 months when I got the call," he said. "It's a hardship for everyone who comes over here, but I've got a good family. I've got two young kids, and that's the hardest thing, for me and for them."
For Cleveland, having his family's support is important. He took a significant pay cut to deploy, going from six figures to an E-6 salary. Still, he said, he hasn't regretted his decision.
"It's something I've believed in since I was a kid," said Cleveland of his decision to re-enlist. "I felt like I left something behind. I wanted to finish what I started."
( Army Sgt. David Turner is assigned to Multi-National Division - Center)