The Pine Cone's sixth story of the week

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Afghanistan duty costs city worker his paycheck

By MARY BROWNFIELD

Published: October 23, 2009

WHEN CITY building official and reserve police officer John Hanson left in July for a yearlong National Guard assignment helping towns on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border become agriculturally productive, his family believed the city would cover the gap in his pay and continue providing health insurance, just as it did when he served more than a year in Iraq with the Guard in 2004.

But a September letter from Carmel Assistant City Administrator Heidi Burch advised the paychecks would stop after Hansons month of vacation time ended in November, and his medical benefits, through which Hanson, his wife and their two college-going kids are insured, would cease Dec. 31.

Citing the California Military & Veterans Code, Burch told Hanson his pay for the first 30 days of military duty would end Oct. 12, after which he would use a month of vacation time.

As such, your health insurance will end on Dec. 31, she wrote. At that point, you will be eligible for COBRA.

But Annette Hanson, who is by now accustomed to her husbands long absences as he fulfills his duties as a First Sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard, said it will cost more than $1,000 per month to keep her family covered. In addition, the loss of her husbands paychecks will mean a substantial drop in monthly income, while her business as a massage therapist and manicurist in Pacific Grove continues to suffer during the recession.

Before John left, [city administrator Rich Guillen] and Heidi said they were going to continue to take care of the medical and make up the difference in pay like last time, and not to worry about a thing, she said. And I thought it was a done deal until I got this certified letter, and there was no explanation in the letter.

She said she inquired at city hall as to the reason and heard the benefits were withdrawn because Hansons participation in the Afghanistan effort was voluntary.

While being in the National Guard is voluntary, guardsmen have no control over deployments, she said.

She acknowledged the citys covering the gap between his National Guard pay and his earnings as the building official, just as it did when he was employed in building maintenance and serving in Iraq as a Staff Sergeant, is not mandatory.

They didnt have to do that, but it showed the support of the city, she said, and the family had been led to believe the same would be true this time.

Before he left, the Hansons sat down and budgeted around those numbers. Its a fine line, she said, with two kids in college. Keely, the oldest, has one more year at UC Irvine and is planning to attend law school after she graduates. Travis is a freshman at Santa Ana City College and is living with his sister.

Now, Annette Hanson is considering pounding the pavement for more business, getting a second job or renting out rooms in the family home to help make ends meet.

After hearing about Hansons impending loss of pay and medical benefits, Col. Eric Grimm of the U.S. Army 40th Infantry Division Agribusiness Development Team sent a letter to Guillen Oct. 8 requesting they be kept intact. He assured Guillen Hansons mobilization was involuntary and said he had been chosen for the assignment because of his engineering background.

This unit has a unique mission to assist villages and small towns within Kunar Province, Afghanistan, to rebuild infrastructure related to agriculture and related businesses, he wrote. Each soldier assigned to this unit was selected because of his or her civilian acquired skills.

John Hanson arrived there a month ago, and the rest of the team joined him this week, according to his wife.
She said she hopes to get answers from the city, though she has yet to hear from Burch or Guillen. She has also been in touch with a lawyer to see whether the city can legally withdraw Hansons medical benefits or take away his job while hes serving.

Burch referred The Pine Cone to the citys attorneys. Mayor Sue McCloud said she was not familiar with the situation and did not even know where Hanson had been sent. Col. Grimms letter listed her as a recipient, but she said she had not seen a copy. The city council doesnt have anything to do with it. I dont know any of the particulars, but I gather something is going on, she said. Those things we dont get involved in, unless theres a policy issue.