At a cost of as much as $20 million, more than 200 National Guard soldiers returning to Louisiana from Iraq are staying on active duty for up to a year so they can have full-time work in their hurricane-ravaged hometowns.
A program intended to give returning reservists jobs if their old ones were wiped out by hurricanes Katrina and Rita is drawing interest too from 60 National Guard soldiers from a Mississippi brigade, according to Col. Billy Thomas, deputy commander of the Army's Task Force Care.
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 advantage is they have full-time employment," said Thomas, who came out of retirement to help manage the benefits and other aid for members of the military affected by Katrina.
"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," Thomas said.
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.
Many soldiers returned home to find their homes and employers gone, Thomas said. Extending their active duty, he said, not only gave them salaries, but also is filling construction and engineering jobs needed to repair the bases, including a National Guard headquarters in New Orleans.
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 $200 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 reservists to extend their active duty to work in the state. So far, Thomas said, 253 reservists 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 also 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, Thomas said.
The families must submit their bills to the Defense Department for payment. Thomas said it is not known yet how much the per diems 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."