In an aircraft hangar in Southern Maryland, a group of bosses dressed in slacks and polo shirts clustered around an RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aircraft. Like excited schoolchildren, they peppered a Maryland National Guardsman with questions: How much does it cost? How far can it fly? Has one ever been lost?
The Maryland National Guard flew the group aboard a C-27 to Webster Field here in St. Mary's County last week to thank the bosses for employing guardsmen and reservists, part-time troops who can be called up for lengthy missions abroad.
"It's important that we know each other," said Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, head of the Maryland Guard. "It's great that after 12 years [of war] that support is still there."
But civilian support cannot be taken for granted, officials say, and shoring it up is increasingly important in a nation weary of war, with an economy still weak. The "Bosslift" and events like it are part of the Maryland Guard's work to woo employers and brief them on their legal obligations to the guardsmen and reservists on their staff.
William "Butch" Hensel, who heads up the Maryland unit of the Pentagon office that manages relations with civilian employers, said the number of corporations and public agencies in the state that employ part-time soldiers has fallen in the past five years from 4,500 to 2,000.
"Almost half of them have gone out of business," Hensel said.
Hensel's organization has started to help reservists and guardsmen find work, and to advocate on their behalf with employers. More than a decade of war overseas and the slow economic recovery at home have made it more difficult to persuade employers to offer perks to guardsmen, he said.
Yet the demands on the Guard and reserves have not diminished, said Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. The Maryland Guard has 412 members now deployed in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Horn of Africa, Kohler said, with others preparing to go.
"Much of the [military's] combat support units are in the Guard and [Army] Reserve," Kohler said.
And despite the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan next year, Adkins said, the number of Maryland Guardsmen deployed could increase in the near future.
Most guardsmen only drill during the year, but any of them can be called to active duty at any time and sent overseas for up to a year.
At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kohler said, those deployments came every five years.
Guard members may also be called up to help in state emergencies. About 600 were activated last year as Maryland braced for Hurricane Sandy.
Federal law requires employers to allow guardsmen and reservists to leave for deployments and to keep their jobs open for their return, but little else. Part of Hensel's job is to persuade companies to do more, such as making up the difference between an employee's military pay and civilian salary during deployment.
Michael Beichler, the bureau chief for trash in Baltimore County, said he sent one of his employees care packages and made sure to keep in contact while he was deployed.
He recalled his days as an Army paratrooper. "A lot of times you dream of food," Beichler said.
Long since retired, he described himself as a "champion" for guardsmen who work for the county. He saw Wednesday's flight as a chance to relive some of his experiences as a paratrooper.
"I'm going down memory lane," he said, "At least I don't have to jump this time."
To deal with employers that try to skirt the law, the Guard employs ombudsmen who mediate disputes or refer cases to the Departments of Labor and Justice for further investigation and litigation.
In the past fiscal year, the Guard dealt with 43 such complaints in Maryland.
Those cases were settled without the involvement of federal authorities, but in recent years the Justice Department has taken American Airlines, Wal-Mart and Home Depot to court over allegations of discrimination against guardsmen.
The Department of Defense hands out awards and organizes rides on military planes and tours of bases for employers who go further in their support of guardsmen and reservists.
"It's definitely a partnership," Kohler said. "We have to recognize that without their support, we wouldn't have a Guard or a Reserve."
At Webster Field, Staff Sgt. Michael Hansen invited the bosses to try out the joystick that controls the surveillance camera on the Shadow drone.
Jack Charles, a veterans representative at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, scurried over.
"You don't have to tell me twice," he said.
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