For reservists in the Army's Special Forces, the discipline can be demanding, the officers insufferable and the active-duty assignments downright dangerous. It goes with the territory.
But it was the paper-pushing, penny-pinching paymasters who got Leslie Smith down. They refused to approve "incapacitation pay" to compensate for lost wages after a low-level night parachute drop over West Germany injured his left knee and rendered him unable to work.
The Army's reasoning was as sharp as a company clerk's pencil point: Smith's civilian job is coal mining, but the mine where he worked was closed temporarily at the time of his accident. This meant he was unemployed when he hit the silk and hurt his knee last April.
So? So a new Army regulation based on the Defense Reauthorization Act states that an injured reservist will be paid either his military wage or the equivalent of his civilian wage -- whichever is less. Because Smith was unemployed at the time of his injury, the Army ruled he was entitled to the lesser amount: his civilian pay of $0.
Smith, 26, of Morgantown, W.Va., a reservist for eight years, refused to comment on his predicament for fear of retaliation by the brass. But his buddies in B Company, 11th Special Forces, and members of his family confirmed the facts of his case. His family provided our associate Stewart Harris with medical records describing the injury and the surgery that left him temporarily disabled.
"I never would have let him go on that mission if I knew before what I know now," Smith's wife, Arlene, told us. She said the doctors report he won't be able to work until October.
The regulation was proposed by the Army and approved by Congress last November to eliminate inequities and double-dipping under the old system. Congress didn't consider the change's effect on seasonal workers and the unemployed.
But a staff aide to the House Armed Services Committee said there is enough latitude in the new law to allow incapacitation pay for unemployed reservists whose injuries keep them from finding work. The Army's interpretation of the new law might be too narrow, the committee aide said.
However, Douglas Lamude, an Army compensation specialist who worked with Congress on the law, said his office is working on a bend in the rules that would permit paying seasonal workers, such as migrant farmhands and perhaps coal miners, incapacitation pay based on their average annual income, regardless of their employment status at the time of their injury.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has taken an interest in his Morgantown constituent's plight. This intervention may help change the Army's tone.
According to Smith's family, his former employer has written a letter to the Army stating that, even though the mine is still closed, Smith would be put back to work as a maintenance man -- if he weren't injured. In other words, he would no longer be unemployed. Whether this will be enough to cause the Army to pass the bucks to its sidelined reservist remains to be seen.