Called to duty after all these years |

Called to duty after all these years

Tom Bowman
(c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — In 1993, with the Cold War over and no formidable enemy in sight, the Army decided to reduce its ranks drastically. So Sgt. 1st Class Rolando Rivera, a soldier for 15 years who was serving a pleasant tour in Germany, was told the service no longer needed his computer skills.

Then this past May, 44-year-old Rivera received a letter from the Army telling him he would be serving in uniform once again, this time in desolate and dangerous Afghanistan. A principal systems engineer for a software company, Rivera has not fired a weapon in more than a decade. His old uniform, hanging in a basement closet, is too snug for his middle-age torso.

The Columbia, Md., resident is part of the Individual Ready Reserve, a rarely used pool of Army Reservists who do not train or belong to units but have each been collecting several thousand dollars a year. Now, with the military stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are now being called up by the thousands to serve in support roles in both theaters.

Rivera is due to report for active duty Sept. 3, according to his lawyer Eugene R. Fidell, but he is balking. While he has been paid more than $100,000 during more than a decade in the IRR, he said he deserves an exemption due to family circumstances — his wife has a heart condition — and his honorable prior service.

“I question how much weight was given to my years of service and the financial hardship we will suffer as a result of this call to active duty,” Rivera said. “I think after 15 years of service I’ve already met my obligation to my country.”

Ralph Peters, a defense analyst and former Army officer, has little sympathy for Rivera.

“He took the (Army’s) money though, didn’t he?” Peters said. “At the end of the day, this person doesn’t have a moral or ethical argument.”

The Army has turned down Rivera’s request for an exemption, and he is appealing the decision to the Army’s adjutant general.

“How is it I get called first?” asked Rivera, maintaining that the Army is supposed to consider prior service in determining which reservists to deploy.

“Not having drilled in more than 10 years, my soldier skills are rusty,” he said. “It could not only be detrimental to me but dangerous to the soldiers in my unit who would depend on me.”

Rivera also complained that the deployment would be financially devastating, sharply reducing his annual income of more than $180,000. And the overall stress would worsen his wife’s heart condition, according to her doctor.

Like thousands of other reservists, Rivera will receive weeks of training, including weapons handling, before he deploys.

Rivera is one of hundreds of members of the Army’s 118,000-member Individual Ready Reserve involuntarily recalled since Sept. 11 to fill key support jobs ranging from clerical workers to truck drivers and combat engineers.

Last month, the Army began calling up an additional 5,600 members of the Individual Ready Reserve to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, revealing that the active-duty Army is stretched thin in its efforts to stabilize both countries. Army officials said more reservists will be ordered to active duty next year.

Officials with the Army’s Human Resources Command in St. Louis said 596 soldiers from the IRR who had been called up had requested exemptions from duty and 299 had been granted. Another 165 of these part-time soldiers requested delays in reporting and 140 were approved.

The command had requests for 106 exemptions and 12 delays pending as of early August.

The last time the IRR was activated was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when 20,000 returned to active duty. Before that, it was the Vietnam War that brought this group of reservists back into uniform.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he would not be surprised if a growing number of reservists resisted the call-up, since many are older and settled in civilian careers. The decision to call on thousands in the Individual Ready Reserve was the clearest evidence of strain on the active-duty Army, Segal said.

“I think it’s the result of the Army being too small to do what it’s being asked to do,” he said.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, said recently that the call-up was necessary “to meet demanding requirements.”

“This is not unusual in time of war,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “And these citizen soldiers are part of the force, and we’re calling them into active service just as we did in Desert Storm.”

Rivera’s life plan did not include the IRR. He wanted to stay in the Army for 20 years and earn a pension.

In 1978, while working at a tool-and-die factory in Newark, N.J., Rivera decided on the Army as a way to travel and pick up money for college. Over the next 15 years, he served at Fort Bragg, N.C., and later in Germany, earning the Meritorious Service Medal in 1992 for creating computer programs that aided Special Forces missions in the 1989 Panama operation, the 1991 Gulf War and the 1992 Haiti mission.

The medal was endorsed by a Green Beret officer: Schoomaker.

A year after earning the medal, Rivera learned that the Army was eager to shed soldiers. He was given three options: Leave the Army without the prospect of a pension; qualify for a pension by spending the remaining five years of the 20 years needed to earn retirement benefits in a combat branch, such as armor or infantry; or enter the Voluntary Separation Incentive program.

That program would grant Rivera an annual payment of $9,000 for 30 years, as opposed to half-pay for life, roughly $12,000, if he left the Army after 20 years. As part of the incentive program, Rivera would be required to enter the IRR and remain there for the next 30 years.

Each request for a delay or exemption is processed by a team of about 20 officers, enlisted personnel and civilians at the Army Human Resources Command in St. Louis, and includes reviews by the command’s medical and legal offices. A recommendation is forwarded by the team and a final decision rests with the commander, Col. Debra A. Cook, said spokeswoman Julia Collins, who said officials would not discuss Rivera’s case. “Since he’s appealed it, we can’t comment,” she said.

In the denial letter from Cook, Rivera was told his request for an exemption was denied under Army Regulation 601-25, Chapter 4, which states that “personnel will not be delayed or excused because of civilian employment or occupation.”

But Rivera noted there are conflicting regulations. His mobilization order does not mention the Army regulation but rather U.S. Code 10, 12302, which states that “consideration shall be given to family responsibilities.” The statute also says that “consideration shall be given to the length and nature of previous service.”

In his appeal letter to the Army’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Gina S. Farrisee, Rivera noted these “conflicting instructions” in his case.

Rivera said the loss in pay should he be activated for up to two years, and earn an Army salary of about $40,000 to $50,000 per year, may force him to sell his house.

As a principal systems engineer for a California-based software company, Rivera’s pay stub shows he makes $15,000 a month, not including bonuses. He has a 15-year-old son in public school and a 22-year-old daughter who is living at home and taking courses at Howard Community College, which Rivera is financing. The mortgage is about $2,400 a month. His wife, Caroline, has not worked in more than 20 years.

Dr. Michael E. Silverman, a Columbia physician who treats Rivera’s wife, said in an interview that she suffers from symptomatic PVC, or premature ventricular contractions, meaning the lower chambers of the heart beat sooner than they should.

The condition is not life-threatening but can be exacerbated by stress, Silverman said, adding that it would leave her scared and anxious. Silverman wrote to the Army in May on behalf of Rivera’s exemption stating: “The increased stress of her husband being called to active duty has exacerbated her palpitations significantly and caused an increase in her symptoms.”

Rivera, who was scheduled to report for duty Aug. 2, has been given another 30 days because of the appeal.

Should he lose the appeal, Rivera will have to report to Fort Jackson, S.C., for processing and then additional training.

Rivera would then be assigned to a support role for an Army National Guard or Reserve unit heading to Afghanistan later this year. Army officials said the reservists would stay in the country for a year but could remain on active duty for as long as two years.

If he does not report, Rivera could be declared absent without leave, prosecuted by the military and face up to a year-and-a-half in jail. He said he would report for duty, complete his training and deploy, for the first time, into a hazardous-duty zone.

“I’ll go if I have to go,” he said.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service