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Saluting Employers Behind the Troops

Dan and Mike Augustine, owners of Augustine and Sons Inc., grow crops and raise cattle in the small town of Rose Hill, Iowa. They have only two employees.

One of them, 1st Sgt. Matt Strosser, a member of the Army National Guard, has been deployed for two of the five and a half years he has worked there.

Despite this extended absence, and the size of the Augustines’ business, Strosser knows he’ll be able to get his job back when he returns.

“It’s challenging, but we put it in perspective with what Matt is doing,” Dan Augustine said.

The Augustines were among 15 recipients of the 2007 Employer Support Freedom Awards, handed out in Washington, D.C., last week by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an agency within the Department of Defense. The awards recognize employers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty with their support for Guard and Reserve members, making many more accommodations for their employees than what federal law requires.

Out of four award categories, the Freedom Awards are the most prestigious that the branches of the ESGR give and the only ones with national recognition.

Strosser’s wife, Jessica, works full time while he is away and takes care of their two sons, Reece, 9, and Tyler, 7. She lives with her sons rent-free in a house the Augustines own.

“Thank you,” she told the Augustines through tears at the award ceremony, “for taking the boys fishing, for calling them up and inviting them down to ride the tractors and combines at the farm, for filling that void that the boys have having their dad gone. Thank you for Sunday night pizza, and games, for setting up cattle sales for the boys … for fixing dirt bikes, for flowers on the kitchen table when I’ve had a bad day, for the offers to watch the boys when they’re sick so I don’t have to miss work, or just so I can run errands or have a few moments for myself.”

Approximately 200 people at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, including Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), rose for a standing ovation. Hodes was there recognizing the two New Hampshire award winners, the New Hampshire State Police and Turbocam; a Freedom Award has never been awarded to two employers in the same state.

The ESGR tracked down Strosser in Afghanistan, unbeknownst to his wife, and he delivered a video message during the award ceremony.

Via video, Strosser said the length of his absence was “more than any employer should have to deal with” and thanked the Augustines for supporting him and his family.

The material or emotional support employers such as the Augustines provide is valuable not only for the direct benefits that the service members or their families enjoy, but also for the soldiers’ peace of mind when they are on the battlefield, said Dave Patel, deputy director for national operations for the ESGR. This enables soldiers to concentrate on the mission at hand, he said.

“These are the best employers in the country,” Patel said.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act dictates that both public and private employers provide National Guard and Reserve members with job protection and rights of reinstatement after periods of active duty and training. There also are rules regarding pension plans, health care and other benefits.

But the employers who are given the Employer Support Freedom Award do much more than what the law spells out. These companies frequently offer to pay the difference between a service member’s military salary and the salary he or she earns at work. General Motors Corp., for example, traditionally paid this differential for up to a year, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company routinely extended that benefit.

Frequently, as with the case of the Augustines, extended emotional support is provided as well.

“They make a greater sacrifice by far than we do,” Dan Augustine said, explaining why he chooses to contribute. Augustine’s company outsources services that Strosser would otherwise perform when he is away, along with simply “picking up the slack” through longer hours or harder labor, he said.

Augustine’s 17-year-old son, Ryan, contributes. Augustine declines to put a monetary value on the support he provides, saying he has no desire to quantify what he does for the Strossers.

Patel said the awards were especially important because the military has transitioned from a largely active-duty force to a force more dependent on as-needed service members.

“As we go more and more towards Guard and Reserve, then we’ve got to do things like this to recognize the solid citizens that these employers are,” he said.

Employees are the only individuals who can nominate an employer for the award, leaving no room for self-promotion or other lobbying efforts. The awards were split up into three categories: small business, medium-sized businesses and large businesses, with five awards given in each category. All 15 winners met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Cheney and President Bush.

Among those recognized were Sodexho USA, which has 6,316 employees in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and has been headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., since 1998. Sgt. Robert Reynolds, one of the employees of Sodexho who nominated the company for the award, said he was “compelled” to nominate the company after all the assistance it had provided him.

“No one should have to tell you to support your employees,” said Anthony Owens, director of media relations for Sodexho. “We wouldn’t want to do anything less for the men and women that are supporting our country.”

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