SELF-EMPLOYED people in the National Guard or the military Reserves not only put their lives at risk when they're called up; they often jeopardize their businesses and future incomes. Although nobody can eliminate the dangers of war, some of the financial mine fields at home should be defused with help from the government these soldiers serve.
Unlike career military personnel, Guard and Reserve members are called away from their businesses on short notice and can serve anywhere from a few months to a few years. They lose clients and employees, incur debt to unpaid creditors, see their licenses expire, and sweat the financial problems as they sweat the terrors of war.
Senator John Kerry and colleagues on Capitol Hill have proposed legislation to give these small-business owners a break through economic disaster grants, tax credits, and loans, recognizing a problem that has been largely ignored.
The problem has been easy to miss, given that most Reservists and Guard members leave salaried jobs with their companies, which are required by federal law to hire them back. But there are no protections for the returning soldier who is the company, whether it is a retail shop, restaurant, gas station, medical practice, or other enterprise.
''It may be a small number of people, but in terms of lives affected the magnitude is huge," said Major Rob Palmer, public affairs officer for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department agency. In a phone interview he estimated that 10 percent of the 800,000 men and women serving in the National Guard and Reserves are self-employed.
Part of Kerry's Military Family Bill of Rights, now in the Senate Finance Committee, would provide grants of up to $25,000 for small businesses hurt by the loss of a key employee, and low-interest loans up to $100,000 for veterans to start new businesses. The legislation would set up a Guard and Reservist task force through the Small Business Administration that would help companies prepare for military call-ups.
The SBA has offered little aid to the self-employed veteran, who often does not meet the agency's stringent requirements for loans, or who is not even made aware that such loans exist.
Kerry, along with Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia and Representative Tom Lantos of California, are also pushing for tax credits for businesses with 100 employees or fewer. The relief would include $10,000 per absent employee to companies making up the difference between that person's military and civilian pay and $6,000 per employee to companies hiring temporary help to carry the load while the citizen-soldier is away on active duty. The tax credits have been introduced as an amendment to the defense bill, which will be taken up next month.
The proposals deserve bipartisan support and speedy passage at a time when troop shortages strain all branches of the military and when Reservists and National Guard members have taken on an increasing role overseas. Lieutenant Colonel Lou Leto, public affairs director for the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, said that Guard and Reserve troops make up 40 percent of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
''Small businesses are what the United States is all about the last time I checked," Lansing, Mich., taxi company owner James Maddix Jr. told the Globe's Brian MacQuarrie. The National Guard sergeant had to file for bankruptcy after returning from a year in Iraq. ''My dreams and goals have been scaled way back. They have to be."
But they shouldn't have to be. The country for which he endured a nightmare should help fulfill a few of his sweet dreams.