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Good Company

The businesses that do more for their citizen soldiers.

12:00 AM, Sep 13, 2007 • By SAMANTHA SAULT
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THIS WEEK, WE commemorated again those who fell on 9/11 and remembered the soldiers who continue to fight the war on terror in foreign lands. And on September 12, the Department of Defense recognized some ordinary civilians who do what they can to help our troops.

On Wednesday, target=_blank>15 U.S. companies were awarded the Freedom Award by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a division of the Department of Defense. ESGR was founded in 1972 to "gain and maintain employer support" for National Guard and Army Reserve members who hold civilian jobs, says spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Barrett. Guard and Reserve members can nominate their company for the prestigious award--and many do so even while stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. ESGR received 1,119 nominations for the 2007 award, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Federal law guarantees Guard and Reserve members health benefits during deployment and reemployment and accrued seniority upon returning from service, but the award recipients do more.

One of the companies being honored is Creative Healthcare Solutions, a small biotech and pharmaceutical marketing firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with consultants all over the country. In May 2006, Lt. Col. Tom Weikert, a consultant in Atlanta, received his call up. The Army Reservist had just one week to say goodbye to his wife and two young sons and inform his employer that he would be gone for the next year. Weikert spent six weeks training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, and was in Baghdad by the end of June.

Creative Healthcare Solutions "decided to make the transition [to active duty] a little less painful" for Weikert and his family, says company president Norman Stalsberg. The company not only made up the difference between his current salary and his new Army paycheck, but also provided Weikert with full benefits, a 60 GB iPod, and a number of other items. While he served on Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I), advising the operations and plans group, Creative Healthcare Solutions looked after the Weikert family. Two company executives even flew to Atlanta to take Weikert's sons to an Atlanta Thrashers hockey game, complete with personalized jerseys, autographed pucks, and their names on the scoreboard.

Weikert says he nominated his employer because "this is a little company that recognized how important it was to support not only me but my family during the 12 months, and sort of set aside the business ramifications." He returned safely to Atlanta on June 2, 2007.

All of the winners--which range from giant corporations like General Motors to small businesses--put the employee ahead of various business concerns. Augustine and Sons, a small, family-owned farm in Rose Hill, Iowa, employs just two non-family members. One is First Sgt. Matthew Strasser, a National Guard member deployed twice in five years working for the Augustines. He was in Kosovo from 2003 to 2004, and is currently stationed in Afghanistan. Dan Augustine says that although "it's a strain on the workload," the family doesn't replace Strasser because "whatever strain it is on us is nothin' compared to what he and his family have to go through." Strasser's wife Jessica and two sons, ages 9 and 7, live rent-free in a house on the Augustines' property, and the Augustines help with the yard work, house repairs, and the boys. In short, they "fill in the blanks" while Matthew is away, says Jessica.

Other companies, such as UMC, a machining company in Monticello, Minnesota, owed the honor to the efforts of their employees. While UMC employee Sgt. Lou Jacobson was deployed in Iraq from 2005 to 2007, the Jacobsons' fence blew down in a windstorm. On a Friday night, 22 of his civilian colleagues rebuilt the fence with UMC providing the materials. UMC director of operations Jed Dotterer says the project was entirely "generated by the employees."