Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Family wasn't ready for this: Dad recalled

Reserve obligation may mean tour in Iraq for guardsman, 43

By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer

MOUNT ORAB - Eight years ago, when Jim Dillinger resigned his captain's commission in the Ohio National Guard after almost 17 years of service, he thought his turn as a citizen-soldier had come to an end.

At last, Dillinger thought, he could start moving up the ladder in his civilian career as a plant safety officer. He and his wife, Tammy, could concentrate on raising their three children and watching them grow.

Dillinger was wrong.

Jim Dillinger has received military paperwork calling for him to return to service.
(Enquirer photo/MICHAEL E. KEATING)
On a summer Saturday afternoon in August, the 43-year-old former Army guardsman walked to the mailbox outside his family's frame house on a long, narrow, country road in Brown County and found an envelope that will change his life - and the lives of his family - for some time to come.

"It was my orders to return to active duty,'' Dillinger says, standing on the sidelines of a recent Peewee football practice, watching his son Justin, 11, and teammates run sprints in the heavy summer air.

It was mail that Dillinger had been expecting for months.

He'd figured on it ever since the Defense Department announced it would call former soldiers back to active duty for the first time in 13 years, when almost 20,000 were reactivated for the Persian Gulf War.

"I guess I always knew in the back of my mind it could happen,'' Dillinger says. "But it was a shocker seeing it in black and white."

Dillinger was ordered to report to Fort Jackson, S.C., by Oct. 13 and to expect 545 days of active duty and a likely assignment in Iraq.

He has plenty of company. Similar orders are going out to 5,600 former soldiers nationwide, including 327 in Ohio and 127 in Kentucky, who have left the military but still have a reserve obligation.

To fill holes in reserve and National Guard units serving in Iraq or on their way, the Defense Department in May turned to the military's little-used Individual Ready Reserve component, saying 5,600 of the estimated 111,000 men and women nationwide would be called to active duty.

These are soldiers who have left the military but who have agreed to be on call. They are not required to train and are not paid until placed on active duty. They can continue to accrue points for full military retirement pay.

The call-up is the first large-scale activation since the first Persian Gulf War, 13 years ago. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, about 2,500 soldiers on Individual Ready Reserve have returned to active duty, although the vast majority of them have done so voluntarily.

The men and women being called to duty now will be assigned to Army Reserve and National Guard units that have been or will soon be deployed in Iraq for up to 18 months.

They are on Individual Ready Reserve, a status that does not require scheduled training. They receive no pay but do get credit for full military retirement benefits after 20 years. By taking this status, however, they agree they can be recalled to active duty at any time.

The decision to call up people on Individual Ready Reserve was announced by the Pentagon in May. Defense Department officials said they would concentrate on people with skills that are in short supply, including military police, medical specialists and engineers, which was Dillinger's specialty.

The fact that the Army needs men like Dillinger, eight years removed from his National Guard service, "just shows that our active-duty force isn't large enough to do what the president says he wants to do in Iraq,'' says Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is now senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Dillinger is resigned to the fact that he will go.

Big pay cut

For Dillinger, the call-up is likely to turn his family upside-down.

Because he resigned his captain's commission eight years ago, he will return to active duty at a sergeant's base pay - $2,362 a month. That compares to the $4,800 that he makes each month, not including overtime and bonuses, as a fire safety and protection and plant security specialist at the Batavia Transmissions LLC plant, 12 miles west of the family home.

Dillinger was told by his employer that the company would make up the difference between his military and civilian pay for six months - a much more generous arrangement than most private employers, who offer no make-up pay.

"The people I work for have treated me great; they've been very supportive,'' Dillinger says. "I know my job will be here when I get back. These deployments are hard on them, too.''

The pay cut will make his wife, Tammy, an administrative deputy in the Brown County Sheriff's Department, the family's chief bread-winner, responsible for getting bills paid and taking care of the children's needs.

"This is not going to be easy,'' Tammy says, sitting on the front porch of their home with her children and her husband. "First of all, the roof needs fixing. The cars need fixing. And it's going to be up to me to get it all done.''

Last year, the couple paid tuition for their oldest child, 18-year-old Sarah, to attend Southern Ohio College as a freshman. They've paid for her fall term at Southern Ohio. After that, who knows?

"This thing could end up forcing her to sit out a year,'' Dillinger says.

Sarah is not only concerned about the prospect of her father being in harm's way for a year and six months, she's also anxious about how she will continue her education. She hopes to transfer to Northern Kentucky University after two years at Southern Ohio College.

Dillinger worries about how his family will pay the mortgage on the one-story frame house they've lived in for almost 10 years. Their middle child, 16-year-old Rachael, just began her junior year at Western Brown High School and is driving a family car to and from school.

"Just another insurance payment,'' Dillinger says.

What really bothers him when he looks at Rachael is that, if he is not deployed until after several months of training at Fort Jackson and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he could be in Iraq when Rachael graduates from high school in 2006.

Dillinger is the first to say that he has no one to blame but himself for being in this position. He opted for Individual Ready Reserve.

"Nobody else did" it for him, he says.

Family first

Dillinger had been in the Ohio National Guard since graduating from New Richmond High School in 1979 and worked himself up through the ranks.

In the early 1990s,while with the 216th Engineer Battalion, a unit now serving in Iraq, he was sent to Shadyside, Ohio, to deal with Ohio River flooding.

Later, he was deployed to Honduras to lead a company of 181 men building roads and bridges.

In 1996, he had an opportunity for advancement at the transmission plant, but did not think that he could do the new job if he had to continue to fulfill his National Guard obligations. So, after almost 17 years in the guard, he decided to get out.

"It was time to think about my family first,'' Dillinger says.

He knew that being called to active duty was always a possibility, although a slim one. In the first Persian Gulf War, the military deployed almost 20,000 men and women on Individual Ready Reserve for the first time in history.

Dillinger says he will file paperwork with the Army Human Resources Command asking for a family hardship exemption. "But I suppose a lot of other people will, too. I don't think I'll get real far with that.''

Julia Collins, a public affairs specialist for the Army Human Resources Command in St. Louis, says those who request a delay or an exemption can expect the process to take "a few weeks.'' All of the 5,600 being called up are being given at least 30 days to report. In Dillinger's case, the notice came 60 days before his reporting date.

"There are those who file because of a medical condition and those who file because of the hardship it would create for their families,'' Collins says. "All of them will be reviewed thoroughly and acted on as quickly as possible.''

Ultimately, Collins says, it will be up to the commanding officer of the Army Human Resources Command to decide whether an exemption will be issued. If the soldier disagrees with the decision, Collins says, "there's a process for appealing up the line.''

Dillinger is spending as much time as possible with his family.

Their youngest child, 11-year-old Justin, is "sports crazy,'' Dillinger says at a recent practice, as Justin sprinted out for a pass.

"He plays football, baseball, basketball, and he's a wrestler,'' Dillinger says. "When he's on the field, I'm always there." But those days are slipping away.

"I've been a hardcore military person all my life,'' Dillinger says. "I'm a patriot. And I love the United States Army. I just feel like I've already done my part.''


E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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