March 1, 2006 – With about 140 of the territory's 700 V.I. National Guard officers deployed to Iraq, government departments and private industry is feeling the pinch.
Police Department spokesman Sgt. Thomas Hannah said Friday that since the department is already short-handed, the absence of National Guard officers has a big impact.
"Some of them are gone for 18 months," he said (See "More Than 50 V.I. National Guard Members to Leave for Middle East").
Hannah promised to find out how many police officers are deployed, but did not return subsequent calls.
He said that while the absent officers are a problem, it gets worse when the department has to staff events like the recent Agriculture Fair on St. Croix and the upcoming St. Thomas Carnival.
Hannah said this means the department must shift its officers around — a situation that increases the already routine overtime put in by officers.
He said it hasn't come to the point yet where the officers are denied vacation time so they can fill in for their absent colleagues.
Fire Services Director Merwin Potter did not return phone calls requesting comment. However, Deputy Fire Chief Brian Chapman on St. John said Saturday that one fire fighter assigned to St. John was currently deployed with the National Guard.
"We had five last time," he said, referring to a previous deployment.
He said three St. Thomas firefighters were currently deployed. To fill in, Chapman said officers work overtime.
He said that 10 firefighters who live on St. John were recently interviewed for jobs. Chapman said this will help with the problem that comes when firefighters unfamiliar with St. John locations are assigned to St. John.
Emmett Hansen, who serves as the director of the U.S. Department of Defense's Employers Support of Guard and Reserve program, said last week that across the territory, co-workers are picking up the slack because their fellow staff members are on National Guard duty.
"It runs the gamut – construction workers, police officers, corrections officers, accountants, nurses ," he said, ticking off some of the professions where National Guard members work.
He said often those people are key members of the work force with lots of experience under their hats. He added they are usually disciplined employees who contribute much to their jobs.
Hansen said that by federal law, employers must allow their workers to return to their jobs when they return from duty.
Hansen, who is based at the National Guard facility on St. Croix, said that keeping jobs open hasn't been a problem in the Virgin Islands because the community supports the military.
"We probably have the best employers in the nation," he said.
He said that deployed National Guard members employed by the local government receive their government pay for 30 days after they are deployed. **(See Source note at article's end.)
Hansen said that in some cases, the National Guard members suffer financial hardship because they are earning significantly less on duty than they would while working at their regular jobs.
He said that deployment also poses hardships on families left behind, who often must do double duty because a parent is missing.
National Guard public affairs officer Sgt. Karen Williams said the approximately 140 National Guard members in Iraq belong to the 610th Quartermaster Water Supply Co. and the 640th Water Purification Co.
She said that there were also members from the 661st Military Police Officer Co. on duty at an undisclosed location in Iraq.
The National Guard also has one surgeon on duty in Iraq and one working on the mainland treating injured military personnel returning from the front.
She said engineers from the 652nd Co. just returned from Iraq.
Brian Modeste, an aid to Delegate Donna M. Christensen, could not be reached for comment.
**The Source would like to make the following correction: A bill signed by Gov. Charles Turnbull on Dec. 22, 2005, changed a provision that paid government workers full salaries for 30 days after they were deployed.
Sen. Celestino White said Thursday that during their entire deployment, government workers now receive the difference between their government salary and the National Guard salary — if their guard salary is smaller than what they earned as a government worker. "Not many are going to qualify because they're making more in the National Guard," White's chief of staff, Franke Hoheb, said.
This correction was made Thursday, March 2.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.