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COLUMN ONE : Stars and Stripes Not Forever : As Pentagon budget cuts loom, personnel fear the job security they counted on may be gone. Enlistees and officers alike scramble to find civilian work.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Staff Sgt. Mark Fishgrab, an Air Force electronics technician with 11 years in the service, is testing the waters of the civilian marketplace. They feel warmer than the cold bath he fears he is getting in the military.

“I feel like I’ve lost a lot of job security I had,” said Fishgrab, who is stationed at Langley Air Force Base. “When I first joined, I thought the only reason I’d get out is if I really screwed up. That’s not the case any more.”

Fishgrab was one of hundreds of military personnel talking to civilian employers at a recent job fair sponsored here by the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Assn. Nationally, he is one of thousands of servicemen who worry that the military, after engineering the personnel reductions now contemplated in the Pentagon and Congress, will have no room for them.

The Defense Department is proposing to draw down the size of the military services by almost 300,000 in the next five years. At that rate, it says, the cuts can be accomplished without layoffs, simply by not filling vacancies as they naturally occur.

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But Democrats in Congress are considering far deeper cuts. That, the Pentagon warns, could force the services to break their promises of job security and resort to involuntary reductions.

Officers, who for years have enjoyed nearly total protection from layoffs, seem to be in even worse shape than enlistees. The services are already seeking Congress’ permission to issue pink slips to officers, and some officers turned up at the job fair here, even though the sponsor represented noncommissioned officers.

“The question is, do we have a surgical amputation or do we have a chain saw taken to us?” said a nervous senior Army officer who asked not to be identified. “We’re all fighting for the heart and soul of our forces.”

William G. Fitzpatrick, a voluble ex-master sergeant who is now a job counselor for the NCOA, said that attendance at NCOA job fairs and seminars has nearly doubled in the last year. And in a shift that Fitzpatrick and others regard as significant, NCOA events are drawing more and more officers.

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But while officers face cuts for the first time in more than a decade, they at least get $30,000 severance pay if they are laid off, as well as an annual pension if they have served at least 20 years. By contrast, “the only thing the enlisted guy walks away with is the change in his pocket on the day he gets the boot,” said Dick Johnson, director of legislative affairs for the NCOA.

Fitzpatrick said that military people make excellent civilian employees. After years of pulling up stakes to move on a few days’ notice, he said, they are unusually adaptable in changing circumstances. The rigors of battlefield life have made them problem-solvers. And, Fitzpatrick joked, they completely outpace civilians in their aptitude for filling out forms.

Many potential employers appear to share Fitzpatrick’s assessment. Among the most enthusiastic recruiters are police departments, federal transportation safety offices and public transit authorities.

“We look at young people in the military because they’ve been away from home, have experienced life and accepted responsibility and can deal with obeying orders,” said investigator Ronald Schroeder, a recruiter from the District of Columbia Police Department who will be talking to military job seekers at the NCOA’s next job fair in San Antonio.

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“The college students have great educations, but they don’t have quite the life experience that military people do,” Schroeder said. “And they do fill out forms a lot more thoroughly, whether because of their training or because they move around so much they tend to keep better records.”

Fitzpatrick cautioned that many departing servicemen and women have trouble setting goals for themselves in the unfamiliar civilian world. Military departees typically hold three jobs in their first five years out--a measure of the difficulty they have in finding their places outside the rigid structure of the military.

“For many of us, our jobs are pretty well laid out,” said one Air Force enlistee waiting in line at the NCOA job fair. “It’s like having a big brother for 20 years. After being told what to do for all that time, you get that note. When you get out, what are you going to do?” One thing you are less likely to do is go to work for a defense contractor. Having once provided countless servicemen and women with a seamless transition to civilian life, defense contractors now offer little more job security than the services do.

Contractors are going to undergo the same contractions as the services, and job prospects are at the vanishing point. Fewer and fewer defense contractors are taking part in job fairs such as the one operated here by the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Assn.

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“I was going to talk to defense contractors, but with all the stuff that’s happening right now, I’m trying to stay away from them,” said Army Cpl. Dave Chambers, a weapons system technician stationed at Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Ga. “I’d rather go with a civilian company with a reliable track record than a defense contractor that relies on the Pentagon.”

Paradoxically, while the threat of layoffs has attracted thousands of jittery servicemen and women to civilian job fairs, it has sent many others scurrying to the nearest re-enlistment center. Their goal: to secure another few years in the service before the opportunity vanishes.

In the January-March quarter, the Navy had one of its best re-enlistment records in years. Navy records show that 39% of enlistees have re-upped this year after their first four-year hitch, compared with 27% a decade ago. The Army, Air Force and Marines say that their re-enlistment rates have remained high and steady in spite of efforts to encourage early departures.

Pentagon officials cite such behavior as evidence that U.S. servicemen and women serve in today’s volunteer force because they really want to be in the military. They contrast that with the demobilizations after World War II, when draftees and their families launched a massive letter-writing campaign to bring the boys home, and after the Vietnam War, when most draftees were eager to return to civilian life.

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But there is another side to the same story, officials said. When Air Force enlistees recently were given the option of leaving before their time was up, 17,000 enlistees responded, more than twice the response the Air Force had expected. The other services report similar experiences.

The best and the brightest are usually the first to leave, said Vice Adm. Jeremy (Mike) Boorda, the Navy’s manpower chief. It is a trend that he and his counterparts in the other services are trying mightily to avoid.

The Navy, whose seagoing mission has given it a brighter budgetary outlook than the other services, is confident that it can keep its best people. But the Army and the Air Force, which have lost major war-fighting roles as the threat of aggression from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has plunged, are almost certain to suffer hemorrhages of talent as the most capable soldiers and airmen try their luck on the outside.

The competition for jobs could be fierce. First Lt. James Francis, waiting at the Hampton job fair to talk to a prospective civilian employer, said that he hopes he can be one of the winners.

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“I had thought that if I liked what I was doing and was doing my job well, that the Army would take care of me,” said Francis, an Army transportation officer at Ft. Story, Va. “Now that’s changed. You’re losing all the benefits of joining. The physical risks are still there, but the job security is not.”

Francis said that about three-quarters of the lieutenants with whom he now serves are getting out in July. “It’s not worth the gamble that you could spend 10 years of your life here and it could be wasted when you’re pushed out the door,” he said. “It’s just no longer a sure thing any more.”

For laid-off servicemen and women who cannot find work, unemployment benefits are tougher to come by than for civilians. Since Congress amended the law in 1981, military enlistees and noncommissioned officers--who make up 83% of the active-duty forces--must wait five weeks before they become eligible for unemployment benefits. Civilians normally must wait a week or two.

What’s more, laid-off military personnel may draw jobless benefits for only 13 weeks, half the maximum for laid-off civilians.

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Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation to restore full unemployment benefits for enlisted people and noncommissioned officers, a proposal that he called “the least we can do.” In the same vein, Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.) has proposed instituting severance pay for laid-off enlisted people and noncommissioned officers with more than five years in the military.

Congress last year forbade the Defense Department from spending any money to assist the transition of departing servicemen and women into the civilian world. The Labor Department operates under a similar restriction, although it is seeking Congress’ permission to assist servicemen and women for 90 days after their departure.

But for many of the military men and women involved, the pain of leaving the military service is measured by more than just the lack of unemployment benefits and transition assistance they receive from the government. For many, there is a sense of abandonment and the loss of a lifestyle that offers an unusual level of community and security.

“I don’t envy these people,” said Lawrence J. Korb, the Pentagon’s senior manpower official during the Ronald Reagan Administration. “Remember, these are volunteers. These are kids who have seen themselves as military people since some of them were 18 years old. It’s not only a job. It’s a whole life--a whole lifestyle you’re talking about here. It’s going to be a tough adjustment for them.”

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