Sgt. Maj. Louie Wolfgram, Kate Newberg of Kelly Services Inc. and Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps during a brief stop at the Algona airport en route to Camp Ripley. Photo by Todd Razor
Sgt. Maj. Louie Wolfgram, Kate Newberg of Kelly Services Inc. and Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps during a brief stop at the Algona airport en route to Camp Ripley. Photo by Todd Razor

Employers from across the state traveled to Camp Ripley, Minn., this month to observe members of the Iowa Army National Guard and Reserve undergo portions of their annual training.

On June 5, two Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters carried the 42 civilians, including city administrators, educators, managers, builders, law enforcement officials and members of the media, to the 53,000-acre military installation.

A program of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense organization established in 1972, the BossLift transports local employers and supervisors to military training sites to help them gauge soldiers' experiences.

It's designed to show employers that the annual training is not about "going to summer camp for two weeks," said Doug Enright, an ESGR state office manager.

A tour of the training ground's Tactical Operations Center, mortar range, demolition range, obstacle course and shoot house, in which two- and four-man teams cleared rooms in an urban-combat-style live-fire training drill, were all part of the 24-hour visit.

"It's nice for employers to come up and see what they really do," said Darwin Seehusen, a public affairs specialist with the Guard. They don't just get "trucked off to war," he said, referring to the Guard's role in providing humanitarian aid and assistance during natural disasters.

Last year, more than 4,000 members were activated to provide flood relief in Iowa, in what Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps said was the Guard's largest mobilization since the Civil War.

In addition to the thrill of the Chinook flight, guests were allowed to handle M-4 assault rifles and other weapons, take part in demolition demonstrations, pass around mortar ammunition, ride in Humvees, try on Kevlar vests and helmets and speak candidly with soldiers in the Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

"That was absolutely one of the coolest experiences that I've had," said Kate Newberg, a district manager with Kelly Services Inc., referring to the helicopter ride. Though the constant hum and whir of the engines and rotary blades were piercing, she liked the aerial views, which differed considerably from those provided by a commercial flight, she said.

Newberg became interested in BossLift after working with George Mosby, a job-connection program coordinator with the Guard, to help military candidates and their spouses find longer-term job opportunities.

From what Newberg saw, soldiers use skill sets that differ drastically from those they employ in their civilian jobs, which impressed her most. In addition to a "clearly strong sense of integrity and duty," she said, the men and women are gaining valuable knowledge and skills that are transferable to their civilian employers.

"Their training makes them highly resourceful; they can work autonomously and perform under pressure, as well as improvise on a moment's notice," she said. Their discipline, attention to detail and ability to follow procedure were competencies that really stood out.

"They're not annoyed by the little things," she said.

Employees' participation in the Guard can be challenging for employers, who have to deal with soldiers' time away from work. One function of ESGR is to address issues and develop solutions associated with employer-employee relationships.

In addition to the need to balance civilian and military work lives, deployments can make it tough to work soldiers "back into the fold" of civilian life when they return, Enright said.

Their "operational tempo is very high," he said. "When they come back to the civilian world, everything seems a lot slower to them." He said ESGR encourages employers to give workers a little extra time to make the transition, as they are brought up to speed on new policies, procedures and technologies.

Since 9/11, the Iowa National Guard has deployed more than 13,000 soldiers. About 70 percent of the approximately 1,700 2nd Brigade troops taking part in this year's annual training have been deployed, some multiple times.

Capt. Nick Jones, a company commander with the 334th Brigade Support Battalion, oversaw the demolition range drill.

Jones, who works for Hydro-Klean Inc. in Des Moines, said his leadership position in the Guard requires a significant amount of time away from work, something his employer has been "extremely supportive" of.

"There are definitely some time constraints," he said. "My employer expects a certain amount of time and he deserves that and the Guard expects time and they deserve that as well."

In balancing the two roles, Jones said: "I think at the end of the day, the things I've picked up being in the Guard complement what I do on the civilian side, and the things I do on the civilian side complement my ability to command a company in the Guard."

Enright said Iowa employers are supportive of military personnel and have been very responsive in helping employees prepare to leave and return.

And in addition to getting Guard members in great physical shape, he said, the extensive training helps them to be better employees.

"Team building and leadership qualities easily transfer back from military world," he said, adding that ESGR has found that those who are successful in their military careers are also successful in their civilian careers.

Mike Helak, president of U.S. Bank's Des Moines market, estimates that about 250 of the company's 1,800 Iowa employees serve in the military. About 18 months ago, he said, U.S. Bank began placing more emphasis on recognizing the military's contributions and is trying to get more involved in supporting members of the military and their families.

"We think the military provides a great background on discipline, responsibility and training," he said. "They get a lot of the fundamentals, and then for us, obviously, we can refine the skills related to the banking industry or financial-services industry."

"There really are challenges," he said, not only for employees, but their families as well, such as trying to cope with staff shortages, especially in this economy.

But U.S. Bank, he said, has found that working through the issues is "the right thing to do."

Helak accepted an ESGR State Chairman's Award during the trip, intended to recognize U.S. Bank's support of the Guard and various programs the company has created to that end.

"We just have to be willing to work with deployments or post-deployments," he said. As employees return to the work force, "we clearly want to keep jobs available for those individuals."

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