Guardsman would rather face Taliban than U.S. economy

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WORLD NEWS USECONOMY MCT

Sgt First Class John Russell, 45, of Royal Oak, Michigan, a 22-year-old National Guard veteran, has extended his tour of duty in Afghanistan, hoping the economy will turn around while he serves. He left his job as a manager at a car dealership in Carmel, New York, where he sold American cars.

NANCY YOUSSEF — Nancy Youssef / MCT

DELARAM, Afghanistan — Around the barren military base, which sits at the crossroads of the Taliban's poppy trade route, news arrives slowly. A single issue of the U.S. military's newspaper arrives by airlift about every two weeks. While on patrol in remote villages, Afghans sometime shout at the Marines in Russian to go away, unaware that the troops are promoting democracy. Most Marines here said that they didn't know about President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet picks, including his decision to keep Robert Gates as their secretary of defense.

However, the domestic economic meltdown has reached even here. The National Guardsmen who serve with the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Corps Regiment, based here, say they fear that their jobs won't be there when they return.

With uncertainty at home, some are doing what they once considered unthinkable: extending their tours. They say that they'd rather tackle a resurging Taliban than a struggling economy.

Among them is Sgt 1st Class John Russell, 45, of Royal Oak, Mich., who works alongside the Marines who are based here.

Russell, a 22-year National Guard veteran, has extended his tour of duty here, hoping that the economy will turn around while he serves. He left his job as a manager at a car dealership in Carmel, N.Y., where he sold General Motors, Ford and Chrysler cars.

This is his fourth deployment, but the first one that he fears will leave him with no job to return to. When he finishes in May, he'll have served 17 months.

"By May, how much more will it change? What will I come home to?" Russell asked.

Russell trains soldiers of the Afghan national army. Daily, he walks to the Afghan side of the base, an even more barren section that the troops often call "the dark side." From within its confines, Russell trains the soldiers in everything from how to shoot to how to run a base.

U.S. officials have said that the Afghan army will double to more than 120,000 soldiers by next year, a tacit acknowledgment that foreign troops alone can't assure the country's security. So it falls to the coalition forces here to build an army as quickly as possible.

That was never Russell's goal. Married and with sons aged 15 and 7, he deployed last January in part, he said, because the economy was getting worse. Car sales were down, and he was having trouble making his mortgage payments.

He extended his tour in the fall, just as financial institutions were begging for a $700 billion bailout. "It was a lot of scary talk about a lot of companies breaking down. . . . At the dealership, they said things were slow," down to 60 cars a month from a peak 110. "Everything convinced me extending was the right thing to do."

With 20 years of service, Russell gets a base pay of $47,830 a year as a sergeant first class — and no bonuses.

These days, what little news he hears is bad. Curious, he once looked at a news site on the Internet and learned that GM was on the verge of bankruptcy. He thinks that Chrysler might not make it. His wife sends him updates as well as hints about his future career. "I think a lot of it is her telling me, 'You need to find something else.' "

Until he does, he keeps serving. Next month, he'll begin training police officers.

"I do it for my country. I believe it's for the good of my country, but I miss out on a lot of good times with my kids and wife," Russell said.

Russell, of the Army National Guard's 427 Brigade Support Battalion in its Logistics Task Force, joined the Army National Guard out of college, in part because he didn't know what he wanted to do.

He started selling cars in 1994. For seven years, he sold 20 cars a month on average at a dealership that sold about 110 a month; for five of those years, he was the salesman of the year. He was called up just once, for nine months in Bosnia, but he was confident that his job would be there when he got back.

In 2001, when he became a sales manager, sales were down slightly. "Leading up to 9-11, it looked like there would be problems. Afterwards, there was a tremendous boost."

He was called up again, this time to protect New York's subway system in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

In 2004, he deployed to Iraq for 15 months. As he left, he worried: "How was I going to come back to work? Would they be understanding?" They weren't. On returning to work in May 2005, he was put in charge of used cars and worked as a finance manager.

He turned in his retirement papers to the Army in late 2007. However, he changed his mind as sales kept falling. By last January, he was getting ready for a deployment to Afghanistan.

Serving at Bagram Air Field, a major military installation, he could monitor the economic downturn over the Internet. He e-mailed friends in search of a job in government or the police, but they always wanted him before his deployment was over. By the fall, he was sent to Delaram, which borders Afghanistan's restive Helmand province, to train the Afghan army.

Not hearing the news about the economy is perhaps a blessing, he said, because he can't focus on what's happening back home. For now, he's stopped looking for work. He said he'd try again when he got home. He hears from his friends at the dealership occasionally, and they try to shield him from the news.

"I don't think they want to give me depressing information. They think I am in a worse place," Russell said.

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