Why Oregon needs a military family leave act

In a few short months, the Oregon State National Guard 41st Brigade will be deploying for Iraq — again. The majority of those troops are married with children; most of the spouses left behind work outside the home. House Bill 2744, sponsored by Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, would offer protection so that employed spouses are able to spend much-needed time with their loved ones immediately prior to, during and/or after deployment, without fear of losing their jobs or being forced to choose between work and family. I wish I had had that protection last year.

My husband is a Sergeant First Class with the Army National Guard, and an active duty veteran. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge during his first tour in Iraq in 2004-2005. This past summer, his brigade spent several months training at Fort McCoy, Wisc., more than a thousand miles away from home and family, prior to shipping out. I had recently moved to Southern Oregon to accept a new position in order to implement programs to help military families and veterans. I didn't have leave time or travel funds available.

We said our good-byes in August 2008. We are hoping that he comes home in August of 2009. When my husband returns from Iraq, we will have spent at least one year apart. There's no two weeks R&R this time. When he makes it back, he will have 30 days' paid leave. I will not — paid or unpaid.

If we support the troops and, by extension, military families, then passing House Bill 2744 in Oregon, which would provide 14 days of unpaid leave per deployment for military spouses, should be at the very top of the state's to-do list. Because the fact is that the demands of the war on terror and the demographics of the 21st century military are very different from the past, and adapting to those realities must, by definition, include expanding support for military families.

For the first years of the Vietnam War, married men were exempt from the draft, and for the duration of the war, married men with children were given deferments so they wouldn't be deployed as it would constitute too much of a hardship on the families. During Vietnam, the majority of troops served one tour, and comparatively few citizen soldiers served in combat. Today, the bulk of the boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan are married. They have served, or are serving, multiple tours; and most of them have children. About 40 percent are citizen soldiers.

The very people that were exempt from the draft during Vietnam make up the bulk of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are serving longer and more frequent tours than ever asked of the military in this nation's history. And so are their families.

When the draft was in effect, the hardship on military families was deemed so severe that married parents were exempt from conscription. Keep in mind that far fewer women worked outside the home then than today, when almost 70 percent of military wives are employed. Because the majority of those military wives are also parents, when a loved one is about to be deployed, they will save whatever time off, sick leave and vacation days they may have accrued — generally less than two weeks — in case there's a child care or medical emergency while their soldier is gone.

So, really, that's what we're talking about here: two weeks. For the minority of Oregon businesses that would be affected, it's a small hardship. But for the majority of military spouses that would be affected, 14 days would be a great gift. And, for some of us, in the very worst-case scenario, we would spend the rest of our lives wishing for those last two weeks of time with our beloved.

Two weeks. Surely Oregon's military families deserve that.

Stacy Bannerman is the author of "When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind," and the creator and director of Sanctuary Weekends for Women Veterans. Her husband is serving his second deployment in Iraq with the Army National Guard 81st Brigade. This opinion was adapted from written testimony to the House Veterans and Emergency Services Committee.

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