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Employers get glimpse of N.C. Guardsmen training for Iraq

The military hopes a trip by business owners to see their employees training as National Guardsmen will help understanding when the soldiers return home.

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HATTIESBURG, MISS. — Soldiers with the North Carolina National Guard who deploy to Iraq in early 2009 must leave behind not only their families, but also their jobs.

To help ease the transition from work to war, the Guard invited several employers to watch the soldiers from the state's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, the "Old Hickory" brigade, training up close.

Employers joined Guardsmen this weekend while they were training at Camp Shelby, Miss., the largest National Guard training site in the country.

"It's not an easy thing for any business, whether large or small, because that person's critical to the operation of the business, and the work must go on," employer Neal Grimes said.

Grimes said he faces a particular challenge – because his employee is his son, Lt. Col. Mac Grimes.

Despite the professional and personal difficulties, both father and son said they can finds points of pride in the situation.

"It's just about the best thing there is," Neal Grimes said. "I'm an old field artilleryman, and I'm reliving my experiences through him right now."

"He's my boss. We have a small, family-owned business," Mac Grimes said. "And him coming out as an employer, he's given me all the support in the world to be able to continue (in) the uniform."

The Grimes' double connection – family and business – was hardly typical of North Carolina Guardsmen in Shelby. One worked for public transportation in Wilmington, another worked sales in a pet store, and a third drove trucks delivering cars to dealerships.

All, though, said that knowing their jobs are secure once they get back is just as important as their mission abroad.

"You can't pay truck payments, vehicle payments, insurance, anything," Pfc. Darryl Burnett said. "You can't provide for your children. I have a son. You can't do any of that. That's probably the most miserable feeling you'll ever have."

The federal Uniform Services Employment and Federal Reemployment Act requires that employers reserve positions held by soldiers when they are called up to active duty or provide soldiers with a comparable job when they return. Businesses are also banned from discriminating against someone based on military status.

Guard officials said they hope the session at Camp Shelby will help lessen soldiers' anxiety and ease the concerns of companies as they have to make do with fewer employees for a while.

"We're alerted about a year out, so it gives you a lot of time to be able to prepare for moving away from your job," Maj. Bill Gray, of Clayton, said. "Working that peace with your employer and also preparing your family and children is the toughest."