Reservists, guardsmen bring valuable skills to special missions

28 Jun 2005 | #NAME?

Air Force Reserve Maj. Eduardo Alzona speaks eight languages -- nine, if you count "legalese."

As an undergraduate, Alzona studied languages and later attended law school. So when the Defense Department asked him to teach Spanish to police officers in South Florida, it seemed like a natural thing for him to do, although he had never served as a language instructor for the military and he was a practicing civilian attorney.

"I was the chief instructor for the team of an intensive course where we taught counternarcotics officers to interrogate and arrest in Spanish," Alzona said. "It was very rewarding. The final exam was a mock arrest and interrogation scenarios followed by lunch in a Spanish restaurant where they spoke entirely in Spanish to each other, the wait staff and me."

Alzona, an Air Reserve attache with the U.S. Defense Attache Office at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, is proficient in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Tagalog and Arabic. And DoD is targeting people like him -- reservists and guardsmen with specialized skills -- more and more to fill specific unique positions.

With about half the troops in Iraq composed of Guard and Reserve personnel, the DoD relies heavily on its reserve-component forces. In between the worlds of the active-duty and reserve-component forces, special projects and missions require manpower. Reserve-component personnel on active duty fill those missions, like Alzona's language training tour, for short or temporary durations.

Army Capt. Gary Good is deputy director of the Partnership for Fiscal Integrity in Dayton, Ohio. PFI is a program that helps agencies find qualified reservists and helps reservists find professionally fulfilling tours. Each year the program has at least 80 to 90 tours available, Good said, adding that his organization draws from a pool of more than 1.5 million reservists from all services.

Currently there are 159 Army, Marine and Air Force reservists on PFI missions and 37 positions that need to be filled, Good said.

The program operates under an undersecretary of defense (comptroller) charter to use reserve-component personnel on a fee-for-service basis supporting DoD activities when regular active-duty personnel are not available. PFI reservists can be more cost effective than civilian employees or contractor support.

Agencies select which applicant they want and have the option to decline applicants. Agencies can also submit a by-name request for certain individuals.

Alzona said he has mostly "networked" his way into the tours he has performed or contacted the Air Reserve directly to apply for missions. The small group of reservists who make careers out of performing these special tours affectionately call themselves "reserve bums" and routinely share information about duty assignments.

The unofficial nickname they've given themselves is a misnomer, considering the contributions they make and the impact they have on the projects they work.

Lt. KC Choi, a Naval Reservist from New York assigned to the Navy Office of Information East, volunteered and was selected to work on Joint Task Force Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. He worked on the team that supported President Bush's inaugural ceremony.

Choi, a seven-year veteran of the Naval Reserve, learned of the opportunity online. He said the four-month mission gave him the chance to "work in a joint environment and learn about the different services."

Alzona said the temporary nature of these missions is what makes them appealing. His current mission, his seventh, is six months long and will put his active-duty service beyond the 10-year mark.

"I have control of when tours start and stop, and I have the choice to accept them or not," Alzona said. "The flexibility is great, and you remain in the honeymoon stage of the marriage always." He added that the work is "challenging, exciting and always different."

All the military services have reservists and guardsmen engaged in special missions throughout the world. Alzona said he prefers these missions to an active-duty commitment because of the variety of assignments and the brevity of the commitment.

There is no limit to the number of tours a reservist can perform each year, and the number of days a reservist performs on active duty depends on the funding agency's budget, mission, the military service and funding source -- the variables are as different as the opportunities. Currently, for example, the Army is seeking personnel for operations in Germany, South and Central America, and Iraq.

Tour lengths vary from as short as 30 days to more than a year. Some tours even pay moving costs. For example, Marine Reserve Forces currently has three-year tours available for volunteers willing to perform special work in contingency operations.

According to officials at PFI, customers fund the cost and determine the tour length, rank and duties of the reservists. And while PFI is a centralized program for reservists seeking tours and agencies who need manpower, each service has its own special missions for reservists. Those missions are often advertised through the service component's Web site.

PFI can use servicemembers from any branch to fill open positions, and reserve-component members on PFI tours can utilize civilian or military skills in their missions. For example, Good said, "We could hire an Army armor sergeant who has experience working on vehicles in his civilian position and place him on orders in a Marine depot repairing Humvees.

Or an Air Force medical administration lieutenant colonel could end up in the Defense Finance and Accounting Service because of his training and certification as a certified public accountant, Good said.

Army Reserve Maj. Elton Johnson, a member of the inactive ready reserve and a California stockbroker when he's not wearing a uniform, used his professional financial experience to secure a nine-month assignment in Iraq as a military adviser with Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq.

"I was the money man," Johnson said. "I controlled the money, and I paid everyone in the Iraqi armed forces. Then for five months I basically assisted and monitored the Iraqis who took over my job after the Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist," the career infantry officer said.

Johnson added that his war service is a good example of how reserve-component personnel can effectively be utilized outside of their military specialties.

"It shows what reservists bring to the table. In many cases it's an indicator of the adaptability of the reserve-component forces to unique missions," Johnson said. "We simply bring more than our military training to the table; we bring civilian academic and professional experience and skill sets that may not be found or exploited in the active-duty components."

And there are other benefits, Good said. Uniformed personnel can represent the government when necessary and can provide a cost savings over contractors, and reservists gain the opportunity to earn active-duty credit toward Reserve or National Guard retirement.

However, reservists ordinarily cannot seek active-duty retirement while serving on these special tours. Reservists with 10 years of active-duty service will only be allowed to perform tours up to a certain threshold, preventing them from earning retirement from active duty. Each situation is different, and there are waivers, but generally most tours are for short durations that prevent reservists from retiring while on these tours.

Army Reserve 1st Lt. Baron Mason said he hopes that the current operational tempo and frequent use of reservists and guardsmen will spawn a lift of what reservists call the "glass ceiling."

For now, Mason said, he is more than happy to serve in the temporary tours. He is an Army Reserve logistics officer assigned to Army Material Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., and is currently serving in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Policy and Procurement at the Pentagon.

"I'm currently on a one-year (temporary tour of active duty) with the Project and Contracting Office, which is a transitional organization that came about for OEF/OIF," Mason said. "We basically support contractual matters in Iraq," he said.

Like Alzona and Choi, Mason applied and competed for his current position and said he believes he was selected for the position because of both his civilian and military background.

"Most reservists have more training, education and a wealth of experience in different sectors of the workforce -- private, government, state, county, etc.," Mason said. A 20-year veteran with two special tours under his belt, Mason has compiled roughly four years of active duty from performing these missions.

Both Mason and Alzona are currently supporting operations that came about as a result of Sept. 11, 2001, and believe their current tours have been the most rewarding in their careers.

"It's part of the global war on terrorism and great to be contributing to the effort from the home front," Alzona said.

Mason said he feels his work now helps others who are deployed, something he appreciates because he served as a logistician in Kuwait in 2003.

"I feel my contributions at this level can provide more for the military members on ground and in theaters of operations," Mason said. "You have to be there to truly understand the needs of personnel in war. My experiences there motivate the work I do here with a dedication that is unyielding."

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