Politics & Policy

Saint Augustine

The Pentagon honors companies who serve those who serve.

It’s hard to argue that corporate America hasn’t taken its fair share of body blows the past few years.

As the race for the presidency heats up, anti-corporate rhetoric is piquing. At last week’s AFL-CIO candidates’ forum, John Edwards promised voters, “[Y]ou will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune magazine saying, ‘I am the candidate that big, corporate America is betting on.’”

The shellacking is merciless. It’s enough to distract from a set of recent awards handed out to companies for their service to their employees in the National Guard or Reserves who have been sent overseas to fight the War on Terror.

The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) organization within the Department of Defense recently announced its twelfth annual Employer Support Freedom Awards. The ESGR awards single out 15 exemplary companies from across the nation that have been especially diligent in offering support to their Guard and Reserve employees who have been called up to fight overseas.

Guard members, Reservists, and family members of troops nominated more than a thousand companies over the past year. Regional committees then narrowed down the more outstanding companies, which were further reviewed by a committee of Defense officials, high-ranking military members, and several small-agency heads. Fifteen companies were chosen, and are to be awarded the “Freedom Award” in mid-September — the highest honor a civilian employer can receive from the Pentagon.

This year’s winners range from large corporations — like General Motors — to small family businesses — like Augustine and Sons, Inc. — to state employers, such as the New Hampshire State police. While the winners of the award are diverse, the stories of companies reaching out to soldiers and their families in need are often the same.

Augustine and Sons, Inc. is a small family business founded in 1852 in Rose Hill, Iowa. This farming business is run by a couple of brothers, and only employs two non–family members, one of whom is Matt Strasser. An employee of five years, Strasser has spent half of that time deployed, with tours in Kosovo and the Middle East.

Despite seeing their workforce cut in half, the Augustines kept Strasser’s place, but also went above and beyond. The Augustines provided a house for Strasser’s wife, Jessica, and their children to live in. Additionally, the children are included in Augustine family vacations and fishing trips.

“A lot of what we do are just small things,” says Dan Augustine. “That’s just something you do for your neighbors. Even if [Matt] didn’t work for me, he’d still be a neighbor.” Initially, Augustine says, his family was uncomfortable with receiving this recognition. They feel that it could be wrong to receive recognition for doing something they should do.

Jessica Strasser says that the Augustines’ support helps her husband do his job well. “He knows that if there’s anything we need, they’re there for us,” Jessica Strasser says. “I can’t even express how I feel about their support. It’s an awesome thing that they do.” Mrs. Strasser’s husband jokes he’ll be stuck with all the undesirable jobs on the farm when he returns, for bringing the attention of the ESGR awards to the Augustines.

Lou Jacobson is a machinist with the Ultra Machining Company (UMC) in Monticello, Minn. who recently finished a tour of duty overseas. Jacobson only had two and a half weeks’ notice before shipping out, leaving behind a wife and children, along with a fence that was blown over in a windstorm.

The employees and leaders of UMC came together to help the Jacobson family. At the company’s Christmas party, a raffle was held to raise money to fly Lou Jacobson home while he was on leave. And one Friday after work, some two-dozen UMC employees came to the Jacobson house to repair the fence, at no cost to the Jacobson family. They built a sandbox for the family’s children, too.

“It’s been overwhelming, and it’s helped a great deal,” says Karen Jacobson, Lou’s wife. “It really saved us from having to make decisions like selling the house and moving in with the parents.” Additionally, Mrs. Jacobson says, UMC was sure to give the family a check for all the backpay her husband had accumulated, as well as for the difference in salary between his work in the military and his work as a machinist for UMC.

Randy Hatcher, the vice president of UMC, says their assistance is simply part of the ethos expressed in the name of the company. “‘Ultra’ means ‘going beyond others,’” Hatcher says. “To stay true to our namesake, we wanted to make sure we ‘go beyond others’ to make sure Lou and his family are the most comfortable they can be.”

The leadership of the company has been sure to check in often with Mrs. Jacobson and her family. And, Hatcher says, his job as a machinist is still waiting for Mr. Jacobson’s return. “I hope he’s as excited in coming back as we are about having him,” Hatcher says.

One of the larger companies to win the Freedom Awards is the legendary Detroit automaker, General Motors. GM has twenty salaried or hourly employees serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at present. GM saves the jobs of employees who go to fight in the War, pays the difference in salary, and maintains full benefits for employees and their families.

“We think it’s a pretty simple view that we take, but it’s the right one,” says Greg Martin, GM’s director of communications in Washington. “They should be able to serve without some of the anxiety associated with leaving their job, and leaving their family,” says Martin.

MCCS Douglas Waite is a Navy reservist who works for GM, for which he is also vice president for communications in the Veterans Affinity Group. “Their policy and attitude was that as far as they were concerned, nothing was changing for me,” Waite says. “Everybody here was very supportive, and when I came back, it was as though I had never left.”

As an officer, Waite has to spend more time on active duty than many other reserve troops, including several longer trips to Virginia for training. GM allows him to take it as excused time, not counting against his vacation time.

Whatever the case, the many beneficiaries of these companies’ generosity express their thanks. The nominators are also glad to have achieved some recognition for the companies in the ESGR awards.

Put simply, Mrs. Jacobson says, “It’s unheard of — employers just don’t do that.”

– Michael O’Brien, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor of the Michigan Review.

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