By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 19, 2008 - Fifteen employers accepted a Defense Department award last night for their exceptional financial and emotional support of National Guard and Reserve members on their payrolls. The recipients were selected from the nearly 2,200 employers nominated for the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the U.S. government's highest recognition for efforts made in the civilian lives of America's citizen-servicemembers, which make up roughly half of the nation's armed forces.
Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said 650,000 National Guard and reserve members have mobilized since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Currently, 110,000 are on active duty around the world.
"This evening is about the young men and women serving today, and I have said in many places and many times the World War Two generation will always be the greatest generation," Hall said at the award ceremony last night. "But ladies and gentleman, what we're seeing today is what history will record as the next greatest generation.
"They're fighting and dying for their country, and they will never fail us," he told the audience. "And to the employers: they simply could not serve without your support."
Robert Nardelli, chairman and chief executive officer of Chrysler, accepted the award on behalf of the Detroit-based automaker. Chrysler, which employs thousands of National Guardsmen and reservists that include about 70 on active duty, continues providing salaries and benefits to employees who deploy.
"Many times I'm asked, 'Gee Bob, isn't that an expense to the company to have to cover these people, fill the gaps, make up their pay, continue their benefits?'" Nardelli said at the Pentagon yesterday. "And my answer is, 'This isn't an expense, it's an investment in our country.'"
One employee who nominated Chrysler for the award was Navy Reserve Petty Officer 2nd Class Theresa Jones, who has spent two years away from work fulfilling her reserve duties. In addition to providing pay and benefits, the Chrysler Veterans Committee collects items and sends comfort packages to deployed employees and other servicemembers.
"The fact that Chrysler made up my pay was a huge help, because I don't think I could have made it financially without them," she said. "It was so nice to receive care packages from my colleagues at Chrysler while I was serving in Iraq. They even sent me a microwave so we could pop our own popcorn!"
Chrysler's chief executive described such citizen-servicemembers as great employees. "They were great before they were called to active duty, and I think they come back with an unbelievable perspective about commitment, about teamwork, about responsibility, [and] how blessed we are to live in this country," Nardelli said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England greeted the ESGR award recipients at the Pentagon. England, who held top positions in the private sector prior to his tenure in public service, told awardees their efforts, in part, are responsible for improving the economic health of Iraq.
By offering support to citizen-servicemembers who have deployed to Iraq, England said, employers are contributing to increasing the number of security forces there. Improved security often predicates a healthier economy, he said.
Foreign investment in Iraq is one of his most trusted measures of success, England said. If industry coffers are willing to put capital in the country as has been predicted in recent reports, he said, investors have therefore deemed that the potential gains outweigh the potential risks.
Ahead of their scheduled meetings with President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney this morning, England told the guests, "You are going to meet more important people than me, but you won't meet anyone more appreciative of what you do."
Delivering the keynote speech at the award ceremony last night was Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, director of the Air National Guard. The president has recommended McKinley to be the next chief of the National Guard Bureau and for a promotion that would make him the first four-star general in National Guard and reserve history, if confirmed by Congress.
"Without your support, these young men and women could not keep their lives in balance," he told the employers of their commitment. "Because when you're a reservist or a member of the [National Guard], you have three great stressors.
"You have your family, and they should always come first ... They have their jobs -- you are their employers -- they have to make sure that they keep that in balance," he said. "And then we ask so much of the young men and women who take the oath of enlistment, that if they keep those things in balance, we will continue to serve the United States of America."
This year's recipients are:
-- Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Okla.
-- Chrysler LLC, Auburn Hills, Mich.
-- City of Austin, Austin, Texas
-- Coastal Windows, Inc., Waipahu, Hawaii
-- Dominion Resources, Inc., Richmond, Va.
-- Jersey City Fire Department, Jersey City, N.J.
-- Lochinvar Corporation, Lebanon, Tenn.
-- Oakland County Sheriff's Office, Pontiac, Mich.
-- Oshkosh Corporation, Oshkosh, Wis.
-- Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, Reno, Nev.
-- Robinson Transport, Inc., Salina, Utah
-- State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Bloomington, Ill.
-- Union Pacific Corporation, Omaha, Neb.
-- Winner School District, Winner, S.D.
-- Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, Winston-Salem, N.C.