For most American reservists activated as part of the military standoff in the Middle East, six months on duty has interrupted their civilian careers. But for many members of the latest Washington-area unit called up, Operation Desert Shield is better than unemployment.

Members of Reserve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 23, headquartered at Fort Belvoir in southeastern Fairfax County, are heading out for duty in the Pacific to fill in for units that have been assigned to the Middle East.

Roughly three-quarters of them work in the construction industry in their civilian lives, where things haven't been going so well lately.

"Sheet metal work's definitely slowing down," said David Gilner, 28, who lives in Solomons Island, Md. "It's nothing like it was last summer. So in a way, {being called up} doesn't bother me."

Like many of his colleagues, Gilner was down to working three days a week because of the flattening real estate and construction market. So having steady work for six months -- even if it is overseas -- isn't all that bad. "Moneywise, it's probably close to about the same," he said.

The same is true for many of his fellow Seabees. His battalion, which began leaving yesterday, includes about 740 steelworkers, electricians, carpenters and other reservists stationed at bases from Pittsburgh to Roanoke, with about 150 from the Washington area.

By today, the entire battalion will report to Port Hueneme, Calif., and on Monday they will be dispatched to bases in Guam, Okinawa, Japan, South Korea, Midway Island and Adak, Alaska, to replace two active-duty battalions shifted to the Middle East. The first 39 members of the unit were sent out last week to handle logistics for the deployment.

The Seabees are the backbone of the Navy's rapid construction force, capable of repairing war damage or building everything from temporary bases to airplane runways.

"We do pretty much anything they ask us to," said Lt. Cmdr. Thomas A. Yeager, of Battalion 23. "We specialize in what you'd call quick-and-dirty construction. You need something in a hurry, you ask us."

Anticipating a call-up, Battalion 23 just completed its routine two-week annual training session Oct. 28 so it would be prepared for full-time duty.

For many, it will mean job security they haven't had in the private sector lately, both because of the sluggish economy and the beginning of the slow winter construction season.

"If this was happening May through November, you'd be hearing a lot more crying," said Lt. David Barna. "As it is, it's kind of a relief for some of these guys."

"It won't be that bad," agreed John Douglas, 42, a bricklayer from Reston. "It's wintertime. Work was slow anyway. Maybe by the time we get back, it'll have picked up."

Jim Gourley, 26, of Vienna, was working as a carpenter for $17 an hour until recently, when no one needed his services. He went to work in the union office, but at $10 an hour, so the call-up this week made him glad.

But there are still mixed feelings. "I've got a son who's not even 1 yet," he said.

Others faced hardships of their own. Douglas H. Chyz, 40, of Stafford County, was married Nov. 5 but hasn't had a chance to merge bank accounts. So he hurriedly wrote six months' worth of checks so his wife, Mary, can pay the bills.