Auto personnel go to war

In normal times, automotive lobbyist Steve Douglas would be helping auto companies cope with the latest twists in ever-changing California clean air rules.

Instead, Lt. Cmdr. Douglas is assisting top officers of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet with management of ships that are supporting the war against terrorism.

The call-up of Douglas and other reservists is a real-life way in which the war sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is hitting home for the automobile industry.

General Motors has lost about 50 people to call-ups so far - more at one time than the company experienced during the Persian Gulf War or the Balkans conflict. About 30 have left DaimlerChrysler for active duty, and 10 have left Ford Motor Co.

"We have been able to continue business operations with other talent we have in our company," said Dean Munger, GM's executive director of labor relations.

Of course, the automakers are big companies with many employees to cover for one another. But Douglas ran a one-man lobbying office of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Sacramento, Calif. In his absence, the organization, representing 13 automakers, is contracting with outside lobbying firms and shifting responsibilities to its staffers in Washington and Detroit.

Home front support

"The alliance has just been incredibly good," Douglas said, citing support he got from the organization after his Oct. 19 call-up. Not all employers always have been cooperative about providing pay and benefits to called-up reservists and National Guard members. Federal law requires that employees be guaranteed comparable jobs on their return.

But employers seem to be doing more this time than in the past, said Keith Lebling, spokesman for the Reserve Officers Association of the United States.

"We have found by and large the business community is going the extra mile," he said. "America was attacked. I really do believe it's a patriotic surge of support."

So far, more than 55,000 reservists and National Guard members have been called to active duty for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lives ripped up

Douglas, 36, who joined the Navy out of high school in 1983 and was on active duty until 1995, said his latest call-up is for one year, but actual service could be shorter or longer, depending on how the war goes.

"I'm very happy to serve. I feel like it's a duty and an honor. But it does rip up your life," he said in a Nov. 14 interview.

In his case, he had just four days from the Oct. 19 call-up in which to notify the alliance of his departure, drop out of law school, send his 15-year-old daughter back to her mother in Alabama, move out of his Sacramento apartment, say goodbye to his fiancee and report to the Navy submarine base at Bangor, Wash.

There is one other consolation: His duty station is at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

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