Mike Shipp no longer worries about sand creeping into the pockets of his white doctor’s coat, but evidence of his recent military service in the Middle East — a splash of freckles across his nose — remains.
A physician’s assistant in University Hospital’s emergency room, Shipp is also a captain in Missouri’s Army National Guard. From December 2002 to early June 2003, he served in Qatar with the 205th Area Support Medical Company of Kansas City. While he said it was difficult to leave his family for Operation Enduring Freedom, he didn’t worry about leaving his job.
“This is a great place to work,” Shipp said. “I found out I’d have to leave in November (2002), and (hospital officials) have been nothing but supportive.”
Law requires reinstatement of jobs for those called to active duty
Federal law requires civilian employers to reinstate men and women who have been called away to active military duty for as long as five years. While the exact same job does not have to be made available, reservists are entitled to a job with equivalent status and pay within the company. They are also entitled to up to 18 months of continued health insurance and various other benefits during their absence.
Second Lt. Jamie Melchert, a public affairs officer with the Missouri Army National Guard in Jefferson City, said he hasn’t seen many problems with employers violating the law. Those issues that do arise, he said, stem from a lack of communication between servicemen and their employers.
“Usually, soldiers provide their employers with paperwork outlining their rights and a timeline on how long they expect to be gone,” Melchert said. “Very infrequently we get (complaint) calls, normally from a spouse, and the Guard contacts the employer and takes care of it.”
Employers forced to hire temporary replacements
More than 2,500 Missouri troops were in active service as of Sept. 11, 2003, according to Melchert. A typical tour of duty could last as long as 16 months, including six months of in-country service. However, because of the post-war situation in Iraq, more than 1,300 Missouri soldiers are now facing a full year of service in-country, Melchert said, forcing some businesses to hire temporary replacements for deployed soldiers.
“Employers have to make do,” Melchert said. “They can’t allow a position to remain vacant for that long a time.”
Shipp’s co-worker Judy Heidlage, an emergency room nurse, said hospitals are stressful enviroments, where people work closely together and become involved in each others’ lives. Saying goodbye to Shipp when he left for Iraq was like parting with a member of her family, Heidlage said, and because the hospital had only one other physician’s asssistant, everyone had to work harder during his absence.
But, she said, that made his return that much sweeter.
“We missed him a lot,” Heidlage said. “When Mike got back he got lots of hugs and a few tears on my part – I was so happy he was back and safe.”
Recent service payback for medical education, Shipp says
Shipp has served in the National Guard for 22 years and is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. His most recent deployment was “a little payback,” he said, since the Army had paid for the medical education that allowed him to get the civilian job he’s held since 1990. And much like the hectic environment in University Hospital’s emergency room, where Shipp said they “treat anything that walks in the door,” his six months in Qatar provided surprises daily.
“It’s hard because you go into an unknown and don’t find out your mission until you’re on the ground,” Shipp said. “I tried to be a calming presence for the younger guys (in my unit)
Now that he’s home and back at his civilian job, Shipp seems in his element. Though he enjoys talking about his experiences in the Middle East, he doesn’t have much time. His work pager beeps and he hurries down University Hospital’s pristine corridors to remove a patient’s stitches.
Soldiers in any branch of the military or their spouses are encouraged to contact the Jefferson City Family Assistance Center at 1-800-299-9603 with questions about employment rights. For questions specific to the National Guard or reserves, call 1-800-336-4590, or visit their Web site at www.esgr.com