Archive for Monday, April 19, 2004

Legislature looks to aid, bolster National Guard ranks

April 19, 2004


— Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Smith's job of recruiting National Guard members is made a little easier by the great location of his small office.

Smith works in the local armory, a tan brick building near Lincoln Park, where Pittsburg residents spend spring and summer playing baseball, softball and golf. Scores of young people drive past the armory on their way to games, often taking Walnut Street because it has fewer stoplights than other thoroughfares.

Now, legislators in Topeka are aiming to make Smith's job even easier.

Through proposals creating new incentives and benefits, legislators are seeking to boost recruitment and retention of Kansas National Guard soldiers and in a small way thank them for serving their state and country.

The effort in Topeka couldn't come at a more stressful time for Army and Air Guard members and their families. Recently, approximately 1,100 Kansas Guard soldiers were put on alert that they may be mobilized for duty in Iraq, where several hundred of their comrades are already on the ground.

"A question that is often asked is, 'If I sign up, will I have to go fight?"' Smith said. "Anytime you sign that bottom line, that is a possibility."

The package of bills, awaiting legislators' attention when they reconvene April 28 following their spring recess, would:

-- Give National Guard members who are mobilized or deployed an income tax credit to offset the property taxes they have paid on their vehicles -- and refunds if the credit is larger than the amount of income tax they owe.

-- Expand the Kansas National Guard tuition assistance program, funded in part from sales of special Kansas Lottery tickets.

-- Provide support services for families of deployed Kansas National Guard members.

-- Grant free hunting and fishing licenses and access to state parks to Guard members.

-- Give preference for state jobs to Guard members, similar to the credit that veterans receive in seeking federal jobs.

Legislators do not know how much the package would cost the state, but House Speaker Doug Mays said the service of men and women in the Guard is "invaluable" both home and abroad.

"At a time when many of our men and women are deployed abroad to protect our freedom, we must ensure that adequate benefits are provided for them," Mays, R-Topeka, said in an interview.

About 600 Kansas National Guard soldiers are currently deployed, either overseas -- including 351 members of the 2nd Battalion, 130th Field Artillery from Hiawatha sent to Iraq in January -- or on homeland security assignments in the United States, such as those providing guard duty at Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth.

Smith has been in the Guard for 16 years and recruiting soldiers since October 1996. His primary focus is on filling the ranks of the 891st Engineer Battalion, especially Company A based in Pittsburg.

"Our retention is as good as it's always been. There's no difference with the war going on or without it," said Smith, adding that interest in the Guard is up among those with prior military service.

Lt. Col. Lee Tafanelli, who is commander of the 891st Engineer Battalion and a Republican state representative from Ozawkie, said anything the state can do to encourage men and women to join the National Guard would help.

"It's a tremendous sacrifice. It's important that we have the next generation of Guardsmen for a state or national emergency," Tafanelli said. The 891st also has been mobilized following floods and tornadoes.

Tafanelli, who chairs the Legislature's Select Committee on Kansas Security, said it is important to provide the right mix of incentives and benefits to encourage recruitment and retention.

To Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, state adjutant general, the incentive package reflects legislators' realization that Kansans may be asked at any time to give up to 18 months of their lives separated from family, friends and employment.

Incentives help soldiers adjust once their mobilizations are complete, easing the fiscal strains incurred during deployments, Bunting said.

Tuition assistance and free recreation licenses may sound simple, but Bunting said they are significant gestures of appreciation. And they make the state an example to other employers by taking care of soldiers' needs, he added.

Bunting said mobilizations could continue at the current level for several years, placing a renewed importance on reserve forces.

"This is big stuff," Bunting said. "Soldiers have to start making plans right away. We're very cognizant that we're asking a lot. There is only a finite amount that you can ask."

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