- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

More than 200 National Guard soldiers returning to Louisiana from Iraq are staying on active duty in a program to ensure full-time jobs to Guardsmen whose civilian employment was wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“They came back home after fighting a war, and they had no way to make a living. So the Army has offered them a chance to stay on active duty and help the state to rebuild,” said Col. Billy Thomas, deputy commander of the Army’s Task Force Care.

Extending their active duty, Col. Thomas said, not only gives them salaries, but also is filling construction and engineering jobs needed to repair the bases, including a National Guard headquarters in New Orleans.

The Louisiana Guard members were preparing to head home from Iraq when Katrina hit at the end of August. Many of the soldiers who were part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team now are helping to rebuild and restore Guard facilities in Louisiana that were damaged.

The $20 million effort also is drawing interest from 60 National Guard soldiers from a Mississippi brigade, said Col. Thomas, who came out of retirement to help manage the benefits and other aid for members of the military affected by Katrina.

About 3,000 soldiers from the 256th Brigade were in Iraq, and about the same number of the 155th Brigade Combat Team from Mississippi have served there and are just now heading home.

Many of the Louisiana soldiers were allowed to come home a little earlier than initially planned because of the disaster. Hundreds suffered property damage. Dozens were unable to contact family members in the days just after Katrina hit.

So far, he said, 211 of the Guard members have received extensions of their active-duty status, which can last up to a year. The estimated cost of a yearlong extension is $100,000 in salary and benefits, which would be more than $20 million total. However, some may not stay that long if their previous jobs are re-established.

In addition, 59 members of the 155th Brigade have begun the application process for extended duty in their state.

The state of Louisiana has funded a similar program. It pays for Guardsmen to extend their active duty to work in the state. So far, Col. Thomas said, 253 signed up.

Among the military facilities greatly damaged by Katrina, was Camp Shelby, a 136,000-acre base near Hattiesburg, Miss. It serves as a training facility for National Guard and active-duty troops preparing to deploy overseas.

Army officials are running the task force out of Camp Shelby, setting up benefits for soldiers evacuated or affected by the hurricanes.

Service members and their families left homeless after the hurricanes are eligible for other benefits.

So far, the task force has processed 3,147 claims from Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine families who were evacuated from their homes and had to pay for other lodging. The families could be reimbursed for up to six months of housing and other costs amounting to between $65 and $150 per day, depending on what city they are in, Col. Thomas said.

The families must submit their bills to the Defense Department for payment. Col. Thomas said it is not known yet how much the daily allowances will cost the federal government.

But, he said, “this is something we felt good about. It’s a program where the Army and the Defense Department have stepped up and said we’re going to take care of our soldiers.”

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