From the inside of the Kalispell National Guard Armory on Tuesday, Mike Flaherty’s voice was drowned out by the hum of a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing nearby.
“That’s the sound of freedom, right?” Flaherty said as more of a statement than a question.
He is the Montana Chair Emeritus for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense program established in 1972 that exists to “promote cooperation and understanding between Reserve Component Service members and their civilian employers.”
ESGR, is made up of nearly 3,750 volunteers in 54 communities in the U.S. A portion of those volunteers, about two dozen, are present in and around all 21 armories across Montana, advocating for a deeper understanding of how “the other half of their [the employers’] service member employees’ lives are spent.”
Those who make up the National Guard and Reserve Component of the U.S. Military are almost all part-time employees and, according to Flaherty, employer support is key to an individual’s decision to remain in the Reserves.
“If they didn’t work for you they probably wouldn’t be in the Guard,” Flaherty said to a group of service member employers.
Although they are part-time, being part of the Reserves is a 365-day commitment that includes regular drills and deployments that can last months. Therefore, while there are plenty of reasons to hire service members, namely developed leadership skills, high levels of trainability and requirements to be drug-free, the decision does not come without its challenges.
However, under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act os 1994, military obligations cannot be used as a motivating factor to not hire someone. Knowing this, ESGR exists to cultivate positive relationships with service members and employers through different educational events and gatherings.
“We want you to experience what they experience,” Flaherty said. “We want you to understand what it is they do when they aren’t working for you.”
Earlier this week, the experience was “boss lifts,” where bosses who were nominated by their service member employees were given the opportunity to ride in a helicopter over Flathead Valley.
This time around, the options in Kalispell were the Chinook helicopter, one of the largest in the Guard, or a Black Hawk helicopter. The dozens of employers were offered a set of ear plugs, and then shuffled onto their designated aircraft where they were treated to bird’s-eye views of lakes and mountains for the next 30 to 40 minutes.
Afterward, they were offered a meal ready-to-eat, commonly referred to as MRE’s. Options included beef stew, tacos and vegetarian pasta - all of which came prepackaged, ready to be safely heated with a water-activated exothermic chemical heater.
But program support specialist James Schneider says what may at first blush appear to be “a joy ride and a meal” to those temporarily buckled into the helicopter seats, is a daily reality for the crew members from that day and elsewhere, who he said deploy in about two months and will be gone for about eight to nine months.
“These members need to be at the same readiness as anyone that is full time. The two things that contribute to this and make it possible are families and employers,” Schneider said. “We ultimately want you to fall in love with the national guard and understand everything they go through.”
He continued, explaining to employers the efforts service members must go through to fulfill various obligations including attending drills and other training sessions. According to Schneider, those in Montana will collectively drive about half a million miles round-trip to attend mandatory drills, yet are not compensated for gas and sometimes have to make the trip on short notice, all while juggling a normal work week with their civilian employers.
Flaherty suggested when instances such as drill arise, perhaps employers can meet them in the middle in more ways than one.
“We have employers in this room who have decided to offer gas money to their employees,” Flaherty said. “Some have made sure that that employee gets to shove off from work early so they make it to drill on time, because after drill most will turn right around and drive however many hours so they can come and work for you the next day.”
In 2018, ESGR promoted supportive work environments for National Guard and Reserve Service members through over 18,000 employer outreach events.
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org