The Hidden Cost of Iraq War

Recent Times coverage.
Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — It won’t show up on the Defense Department’s budget, but the prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq is beginning to burden state and local governments as they struggle to get by without employees mobilized into National Guard and military reserve armed forces.

California Controller Steve Westly calculates that it costs an average of $1,500 a month in salary adjustments and benefits for each activated state employee reservist. That figure does not include the cost of filling positions that have been vacated by members of the National Guard.

The state has the highest number of mobilized National Guard and reserve troops, with more than 10,300 on active duty. A large number of those soldiers are public employees, many of whom work in law enforcement or the state prison system.

Under California law, state agencies are required to make up the difference between their employees’ civilian and military pay as well as to continue full benefits. State officials said the salary differential payments ranged from $5.25 a month to as much as $4,757 a month. So even when a worker is on patrol in Iraq, the employee continues to receive a partial salary and full benefit contributions from the state.

Every level of state and local government has been touched by the hidden cost of war.

The California Department of Corrections, with 148 employees on active duty, reported that since last July 1 it had spent nearly $2 million on personnel-replacement costs for prison guards on military leave.

“Many of these people have jobs in critical areas that we can’t leave unstaffed,” said Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton. “The only way to keep those positions filled as mandated by law is by paying overtime.”

Similarly, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which recently won a national award for its generous policy regarding reservists, has had to scramble to make up for more than 151 deputies who have been called up for military duty since Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, 35 sheriff’s deputies are activated.

Even tiny Carmel-by-the-Sea, with only one employee serving in Iraq, has felt the effect of the U.S. occupation.

Carmel City Administrator Rich Guillen estimated that the deployment of building maintenance specialist John Hanson, a National Guard staff sergeant who just began a one-year tour in southern Iraq, would cost the city an additional $13,000 a year, mainly in hiring contractors to do some of Hanson’s work.

“We miss him,” said Guillen. “In a small city like ours, everyone has to pull together to fill his shoes.”

For the past half-century, National Guard and reserve civilian employers have seldom been asked to endure more than short-term absences, including two weeks in the summer for training and occasional duties dealing with forest fires, floods or urban riots. But as the Iraq occupation continues into a second year, the reservists, including 2,600 activated California National Guard soldiers, are serving much longer stints, ranging from one year to 18 months.

This situation presents their public and private employers with a fiscal challenge not faced since the Korean War, the last time the “citizen soldier” militias were used so extensively.

In some cases, filling in for the absent employee also means hiring a temporary replacement or paying extra overtime. In others, it amounts to shifting schedules or simply reducing services.

In early April, Curtis Lewis, 42, an American history instructor who teaches Advanced Placement classes at Poway High School in San Diego County, began a one-year assignment as a platoon leader with the California National Guard in southern Iraq.

The Poway school district hired a temporary replacement to teach the soldier’s classes while it continues to pay Lewis half of his teacher salary and full benefits. Greg Franzen, Poway director of personnel, said the extra cost to the district during Lewis’ deployment would be about $28,000.

Capt. Steve Beeuswaert, who commands the Santa Ana-area office of the California Highway Patrol, has three of his 106 patrol officers serving in Iraq. “We just run short,” Beeuswaert said. “With the budget situation, we can’t hire anyone. We don’t have reserves. It just means we have three less officers out on the road.” CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said 149 patrolmen or staff have been called up statewide since Sept. 11, 2001.

One of the Santa Ana CHP officers on military leave, Sgt. Maj. John Isbister, exemplifies the expanded responsibilities given to the National Guard. Isbister, a 19-year veteran of the National Guard, serves in the 1st Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment from San Bernardino. His recent one-year assignment to Iraq — where he is posted at the Scania convoy support post, 100 miles south of Baghdad — is his first overseas mission. Before Iraq, Isbister’s only other deployment was during the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict.

The public sector tends to be more generous than private industry in compensating reservist employees, although some companies, including defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, offer similar packages. Northrop Grumman and Strategic Solutions Inc. of Walnut Creek were the only two California companies honored this year by the Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve group.

“The National Guard and reserve represent 37% of the forces currently in Iraq,” said Employer Support Executive Director Bob Hollingsworth in presenting the awards. “With the increasing need for Guard and reserve troops, America’s employers are inextricably linked to the nation’s defense by sharing their most precious assets, their employees.”

Most county and local governments, including school districts, also offer some sort of supplementary compensation. The federal government reimburses none of those costs.

Despite the extra burden, local governments, no matter how strapped, seldom balk when asked to support their employee-soldiers, even in communities where citizens largely oppose the Iraq policy.

Besides making up the difference in military and civilian pay for up to two years, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department offers free counseling for post-traumatic stress and has set up a fund to help the families of those called to serve as well as pen pal clubs to keep in touch with overseas deputy-soldiers.

The Sheriff’s Department’s military-leave policy recently won a Secretary of Defense Freedom Award from the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. The organization, staffed mostly by volunteers and a handful of active-duty members of the military, works to ensure that reservists are fairly treated by their public and private employers. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the state of Minnesota were the only two public employers among the 15 honored May 14, when the awards were announced.

Lt. Col. William DuPont, a spokesman for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, said about a third of the reservists called to active duty were “adversely impacted economically by the call-up.” Another third, mainly younger entry-level jobholders or students, have seen their economic fortunes improve. The rest, aided by employer programs offering differential pay, remain at about the same level.

Cmdr. Lynda Castro, who heads the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Military Activation Committee, said the agency’s program is aimed at ensuring that soldiers don’t come home to a hostile, uncaring atmosphere.

“I saw what happened to those who served in Vietnam,” Castro said. She said the department has not attempted to calculate the cost of the program.

“We care about our citizen-soldiers who are in harm’s way,” she said. “We know that when someone is gone, someone else has to fill that role on patrol or in the jails. We do everything we can not to put a guilt trip on the employee, making them think that what they are doing is a huge drain.”

For Poway High Principal Scott Fisher, the cost of losing a valuable teacher like Curtis Lewis goes beyond money.

“We don’t even think about the financial part,” Fisher said. “Curt was a top teacher on campus. When you take him away, you can’t replace him immediately.”