San Diegos, Calif.

Bumping foreheads and bruising shins in a carrier’s tight doorways. Lying belly-down below the fuselage’s wood deck in a 1950s-era Air Force tanker. Hastily lining up to the barks of three Marine drill sergeants who make it known they don’t have all day.

All part of everyday military life, sure. But is this any kind of vacation for civilians?

Not really. More like a school field trip for adults.

About 30 public and private employers from around New Mexico recently tasted the military life on a three-day visit to San Diego. The trip was to show civilian bosses of reservists and National Guard troops the work their military employees do when deployed or while training.

And with the Pentagon’s need for reservists and Guardsmen expected to swell further in the terrorism war, trip organizers say the show-and-tell couldn’t be more timely.

“Bosses learn to appreciate what their employees are doing and, we hope, don’t mind having Guardsmen and reservists for employees,” said Gary Kaiser, ombudsman for the state’s arm of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR.

The ESGR, a national agency under the Defense Secretary Office for Reserve Affairs, is dedicated to assisting part-time servicemen and women who might encounter problems with civilian employers. They have many tools to thank understanding bosses, including thank-you letters, certificates of appreciation, visits to local bases and the occasional jaunt to major military installations.

In addition to vital shipping ports and a border with Mexico, the San Diego area hosts a bevy of moored Navy vessels, the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton and a recruiting depot, Coast Guard operations and, of course, various reserve offices.

It is a what’s what of regional military activity.

The trip began in Air Force style, aboard a cavernous KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-135 is the second-oldest airplane of its type in the service’s inventory. Much of the fuselage is brimming with jet fuel for air-to-air refueling. Members of the 931st Air Refueling Wing from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., demonstrated their work with the help of two F-16s from the New Mexico Air National Guard.

Two-by-two, tour participants were taken below the main wood deck of the plane to see in-air refueling. From the rear, a boom operator guided the retractable fueling nozzle into the fuel tank of the trailing F-16.

In California, the three-day tour included visits to the destroyer USS Oldendorf and the massive USS Constellation, one of the oldest carriers in the Navy.

Employers also looked behind-the-scenes at the Tijuana, Mexico, border crossing.

But the most active part of the tour came at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

After a brief tour of the historic grounds, participants were told to wait patiently on the bus. As the bus driver quietly snuck away, three “mad-as-hell” drill sergeants boarded the bus, banging on the walls and windows, demanding everyone off now, now, now.

Tour participants, many of whom could easily qualify for AARP membership, were verbally dragged off the bus and ordered to file in rows and columns, standing at attention. It was an exercise almost identical to what real-life recruits are put through, although their induction is done at night.

After sections of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other on-base rules were shouted at participants, the sergeants ordered all to file into a briefing room where real recruits would surrender their possessions. From there, recruits are stripped naked and begin the humbling 12-week training required of all Marines.

There was no such stripping for the New Mexico group. After taking a few more commands and hearing about the prohibition of drug-use several times, the group was placed at-ease and given a little certificate, reading:

“This is to certify that the bearer has successfully completed the first two minutes of the 12 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.” Signed, Maj. Gen. Jan Huly, commanding general.

“You got the more low-down version,” Staff Sgt. Amman Catalan told the group afterward. “The real one is more high-pressure. There would have been pushups. That’s when we make our impression. This isn’t the Navy or Air Force.”

At this stage, some of the 600 real recruits who come through weekly cry, Catalan added.

The visitors all remained visibly dry before enjoying lunch at the mess hall with some recruits from Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

The sponsoring ESGR group tries to put on these trips annually, but they are sometimes limited by available military flights and tour locales. Past trips have included Washingtn., D.C., Seattle and New Orleans, Kaiser said.

For most of the year, the support group performs its ombudsman mission for the National Guard and Reserve servicemen. Civilian workplace discrimination against Guardsmen and reservists is prohibited by federal labor law, and the group works to iron-out potential issues with employers before they turn into firings or lawsuits.

Nine times out of 10, the group quells potential conflicts with civilian bosses, said state director Norm Churchill.

New Mexico has an estimated 10,500 Guardsmen and reservists. Many of them hold civilian jobs as police and firefighters. A third of them are college students.

When there are large-scale military deployments for conflicts around the globe, police departments and fire stations can be hit hard, Kaiser said.

In Clovis, for example, city government offices quickly learned after Sept. 11 that they had eight employees in the Reserves. City Manager Ray Mondragon said the personnel department began working immediately to accommodate any absences.

“We just wanted to make sure we had this taken care of,” said Mondragon, who came along for the San Diego tour.

The city of Roswell also had some police officers called to military duty after the attacks. City Councilor Judy Stubbs said the trip was informative “to see first-hand what our employees are doing.”

“Everything we saw has made me more appreciative of what they do,” Stubbs said.

What’s your Reaction?
Miguel Navrot