RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This week, we've been taking a look at America's National Guard. Soldiers in the guard live in two worlds. They can be sent to war in a crisis, but they also have to support themselves in civilian jobs. Alison St. John with member station KPBS in San Diego has the story of two National Guard soldiers who are trying to serve their country while, at the same time, building their careers.
CHRISTOPHER AVILA: I mean, essentially, all I have in here is, like, my dress uniform.
ALISON ST. JOHN, BYLINE: The closet in Christopher Avila's small bedroom pretty much reflects his life.
AVILA: Uniforms, backpacks, rucksack. These duffel bags are full of uniforms, jackets, other things we wear when we go to the field. It's about half of my closet.
ST. JOHN: His civilian clothes are squeezed in one side, his National Guard gear in the other. Avila is 23. He's been in the Guard for three years, and he loves it. The commitment is one weekend a month and two weeks training in the summer. But that's seldom how it works out.
AVILA: On paper, they ask for one weekend a month, which is what you tell your employers. And sometimes, the employer will have trouble just even dealing with one weekend a month because it's, hey, we have to shift that entire week around just so you have the day off.
ST. JOHN: Weekends often turn into four days, Avila says. And because he's an IT specialist, he frequently gets called up for extra training on new technology. He had a job with a civilian company where he was able to use his IT skills. But he got called to Guard trainings two weekends in a row. A few days later, another commitment.
AVILA: And then I had to go for two weeks to Fort Hood to do some training for some new stuff that my unit was getting. And when I came back, they ultimately came down to the conclusion that they had let me go because I wasn't meeting their quota or I was - you know, misconduct or something like that. But, you know, companies have to find a way around letting people go sometimes.
ST. JOHN: Companies that hire people in the National Guard cannot legally fire them for fulfilling their Guard commitment. But, Avila says, others in his unit have also found themselves out of a job after going on one too many military trainings.
Avila has found another job at T-Shirt Mart using his graphic design skills. One of his managers, Arthur Nava, says they're willing to work around Avila's training schedule.
ARTHUR NAVA: I'd say a good 30 to 40 percent of our customers are military-based families here in San Diego. We do have an understanding of what it means to be, you know, in the military, and we try to help those people out as much as we can.
ST. JOHN: Finding a job is hard enough, but building a career is even more difficult for people serving in the Guard. Rida Sihab Mansor is 32. He's a staff sergeant who served eight years as a linguist and translator for the Army National Guard. He deployed for one year of combat duty in Iraq which earned him the decorations on his dress uniform.
RIDA SIHAB MANSOR: I have 13 metals. Bronze Star is the top one, which is the highest one. This is my Army achievement, anti-terrorism. This is National Guard one.
ST. JOHN: Because Mansor has served as a full-time recruiter for two years as well as being deployed, he qualified for the post-9/11 GI Bill and is finishing a degree in security management. But that has not been enough to get his foot on the career ladder.
MANSOR: I've applied everywhere. I don't even get an email back. Well, I've got a pretty good resume. I've even applied to couple security companies, and I've seen them hire the guy next to me who didn't even know how to fill out an application. Didn't hire me (laughter), and I'm in the same field. I'm going for a bachelor's degree within that field.
ST. JOHN: I asked Mansor if he thought his commitment to the Guard was what was making it so difficult to build a career.
MANSOR: I didn't at first, but I'm positive it does right now.
ST. JOHN: He earns a little money, about a $100 a day serving on the honor guard at military funerals. He says he enjoys the days when he can put on the uniform and serve.
MANSOR: I love it. I'm very proud of being part of that team - really, really beautiful ceremony. We train a lot to be perfect at it.
ST. JOHN: And, Mansor says, he'd do it for free, but the reality is he's got a mortgage to pay. And he's looking for a career.
MONTAGNE: That's reporter Alison St. John. She's on the line with us now. And, Alison, your story raises questions, maybe the most obvious one being we hear a lot about companies wanting to hire veterans. But the situation the National Guard is in, that doesn't apply to them so much.
ST. JOHN: Well, that's right. Even in companies that favor hiring military, national guardsmen find themselves competing for jobs with vets who don't have to ask their employers for time off every month for training. Employers do earn federal tax credits for hiring vets. But National Guards who have not been deployed on a federal mission wouldn't qualify as a vet for those credits. You know, their training - that's the one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer - falls under a different category of service.
MONTAGNE: So these people have served, but the service doesn't qualify them as vets to get hiring preferences?
ST. JOHN: That's right. If they're deployed on a federal mission for at least six months, that counts. But for a state emergency, for example, or two-week training, that doesn't count. And that means that employers have to choose between a vet who comes in with federal tax credits of anything up to a $1,000 and one who may come in with limited or no tax credits and has to be absent on a regular basis for training, plus, of course, might get called away unexpectedly for a statewide emergency, such as a wildfire.
MONTAGNE: And for an employer, given the choice between a vet and a member of the Guard, it's easier to hire the vet.
ST. JOHN: Well, that's right. Exactly.
MONTAGNE: How long must a member of the Guard have been on active duty to qualify for VA benefits like the GI Bill?
ST. JOHN: Three years, or 36 months, for full benefits for the post-9/11 GI Bill. Otherwise, they get a prorated portion, about 60 percent if they serve for one year. And again, remember, the training days or service to the state, that doesn't count, although some states like California do provide some extra education benefits. And the thing to remember is that as the wars wind down, chances to deploy are fewer, so it's less easy to qualify for those benefits.
MONTAGNE: And from what you know of the two National Guard soldiers that you profiled here, how likely is it for them to be able to build the civilian careers that they really want?
ST. JOHN: Well, Christopher Avila hopes to be deployed to Iraq in October, and that could help him get a better-paying job in IT, his field, because he'd qualify for GI Bill benefits. But he would still need to find an employer who would be willing to let him go on frequent trainings and be ready to serve at the drop of the hat if a state-level or federal crisis cropped up. Then, this Mansor - he's the one who's served on the honor guard - he's soon going to be qualified with that degree in security management. He did qualify for a VA loan for his house, so he's still looking for an employer, though, who's willing to be very flexible with his schedule. And he's devoted to the Guard. He's been in the Guard for eight years, and he plans to stay for a full 20 years. That way, he'll earn retirement benefits, he says, and that's at least something, even if the civilian world doesn't offer him much security.
MONTAGNE: That's Alison St. John of member station KPBS in San Diego. Her report is a part of NPR's collaboration with stations called Back at Base, a look at the U.S. military on the homefront. Thanks for joining us.
ST. JOHN: My pleasure, Renee.