Citizen soldiers returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are no doubt relieved to find their civilian jobs waiting for them. But while federal law guarantees reemployment for those serving in the Reserves and National Guard, the transition from battlefield to workplace can be fraught with difficulties not addressed in any policy manual.

Many employers and soldiers will soon be entering this uncharted territory. Of the 1.2 million people serving in the Reserves and National Guard, 400,000 have been mobilized since September 11, 2001, with 140,000 of them currently serving in Iraq and elsewhere, according to the US Department of Defense.

"It's a hardship on everyone -- the employer, the employee and temporary workers," explains Angelika Lamie, a senior master sergeant with the Montana Air Guard. "When [employers] have an employee called to active duty, most of the questions are about what the law is."

That law is the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). It was passed by Congress in 1994 to provide reemployment protection and other benefits to those engaged in military service. Now, for the first time since its passage, the Department of Labor has issued proposed regulations interpreting employer responsibilities under USERRA. These provide reemployment rights to veterans and reservists returning from active duty and require that reservists and service members returning from active duty to their previous civilian employers be given all the benefits of employment as if they had been continuously employed.

Employers Doing Their Part

US Department of Defense officials say that overall, employers are doing their part during these difficult times.

"They are doing a tremendous job," says Dave Patel of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) in Washington, an agency within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. "Hundreds of employers are going above the requirements of USERRA. They are really supporting what our Guard and Reserve folks are doing in Iraq."

But Patel still has concerns over some issues veterans returning to the workplace face, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Washington says that issue could affect more than 30 percent of combat veterans.

"It’s hard for those who have never served to understand the mind-set," Patel explains. "And most HR professionals in this country don’t have a great understanding of post-traumatic stress."

With modern travel, a reservist can be in Baghdad Friday and back in his hometown by Sunday. But that doesn’t mean he should be back at the job on Monday, Patel says.

How to Help

The most important thing for employers to remember is that returning to work is a radical shift, experts say. Some soldiers have spent months at war, encountering life-and-death situations on a daily basis. Some have seen their close friends and comrades killed or seriously injured. When they return to civilian work, it’s a big adjustment.

The best thing to do? Don’t rush them back into the workplace. Other tips:

  • Welcome reservists back with open arms and make them feel like valuable members of the workforce.
  • Give them time to reestablish family relationships.
  • Be careful about comments and questions about their military experiences, especially if they were involved in combat.
  • By the same token, respect privacy. If soldiers wish to discuss their experiences, let them; if they don’t, don’t pursue it.
  • Familiarize yourself with the USERRA.

It's clear that an increasing number of employers will need to be up to speed on USERRA-related issues. After more than three years of extended deployments and uncertain futures for Reserve and Guard troops, the Pentagon is now considering even longer tours of duty.

Where to Get Help

Where should you look for support? Here are several options:

  • Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), (800) 336-4590. This agency is eager to work with employers and help answer questions about USERRA.
  • The Department of Labor, (866) 487-WAGE. This site includes a thorough explanation of USERRA, as well as a help section to address questions and concerns.
  • Military One Source, (800) 342-9647, offers support for employees if they return to civilian life and need financial counseling or help with other issues.