When Spec. David Manno of the Maryland National Guard was called for duty in February, he was sure he'd be sent overseas to help fight the war. And so he told his civilian employer that he could be gone for months, maybe even a year.
As it turned out, however, Manno, 31, of Baltimore didn't have to go. While most of his unit was deployed, he was free after two weeks to go back to his job as a security guard. Only there was a glitch: His company had filled his position and said the only opening it had was one paying $11 an hour, $2 an hour less than he had been making.
"They said, 'Take it, or don't take it,' " he said. " 'But if you don't, you don't work.' "
That's when Manno called Fred Samuelson.
"I don't know what he said to them," Manno said. "But half an hour later, I was in touch with my boss and I had a job paying $15 an hour."
As the military relies increasingly on its "citizen-soldiers," they in turn look more often to such people as Samuelson, an ombudsman with the Department of Defense. Part counselor, part advocate, he and more than 400 other unpaid volunteers nationwide help smooth the sometimes sticky transition for members of the reserves and National Guard as they move between the military and civilian worlds.
The law says that employers must let reservists go when they are called and hold their jobs for them when they return. They are not supposed to lose out on promotions or take pay cuts. But as more reservists are forced to leave their civilian jobs -- more than 221,000 are on active duty -- more problems pop up.
As the military has moved from the combat in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq and now to a peace-keeping mission there, the number of calls from reservists or their civilian bosses has grown, from 11,000 in fiscal 2001 to 17,000 last year, according to Col. Al Smith, the Pentagon's director of ombudsmen services.
The surge reflects, at least in part, a change in employer attitudes toward reservists. Traditionally touted by the military as a way to become a more attractive job candidate, reserve duty now is sometimes considered a problem by companies reluctant to hire people who could be called away at any moment.
A recent congressional report found that "being identified as a reservist is becoming a liability with some employers, and some reservists are omitting from their resumes any mention of their reserve involvement."
The increasing mobilization, the report said, "introduces a level of unpredictability into reservists' personal, family, economic and professional lives that pose many difficulties. As a result, leaving the reserves is an increasingly attractive option."
In February, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are working to find a way to ease the burden on the reserves. While Rumsfeld said the reserves are "pumped and doing a terrific job," he acknowledged that they don't want "get called up four, five, six times in a short period of time, because it's very difficult for their families, it's difficult for their employers."
With the war in Iraq winding down, the Defense Department's National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve is girding for the problems that could emerge when thousands of reservists move back to their civilian jobs. Dozens of new ombudsmen are being trained, Smith said, and the number nationwide is expected to grow from 430 last year to about 500.
"When the demobilization begins, we'll be ready," Smith said.
Employers aren't the only source of career problems for reservists.
Samuelson said he often barks at commanding officers who constantly call their troops in for training. "What would you do if one of your employees was leaving every three weeks?" he recalled asking an officer who kept ordering a sharpshooter to base.
Some cases aren't so easy to solve. Samuelson spent the better part of Monday morning negotiating the D.C. government bureaucracy on behalf of a D.C. Air National Guard member who also works in the city's Department of Corrections.
The 55-year-old sergeant had recently received a letter from the District saying it overpaid him by tens of thousands of dollars while he was on active duty, and it wanted the money back.
Samuelson, persistent but polite, insisted that the error was made by the city, which he said should have been paying the guardsman the difference between his military and city salaries, not his full salary. The city should make the adjustment, he said, and the guardsman would owe "dramatically less."
"It's just sloppy bookkeeping," he said.
In another recent case, he helped Patricia Anderson keep her nursing job and get paid for lost time after she returned from active duty with the Air Force Reserve. The hospital she works for wouldn't let her return to her regular job because it feared that the smallpox vaccination the military had just given her could infect patients. She said the hospital told her it couldn't find other work for her to do, so she went a week without pay while the hospital waited for the risk of infection to go away.
"I felt like I was being discriminated against," she said.
A few days later, after she talked to Samuelson about it, he told her the issue was resolved.
"You're being paid," she recalled him saying. "It's all taken care of."