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Self-employed reserve members take extra hits

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ U.S. reservists are prepared to sacrifice their lives in military service, but some also may be sacrificing their livelihoods.

For reservists who own a business such as Ron Page, a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, being deployed to the conflicts in the Middle East can put tremendous strain on his small operation. Page's store had only been open for six months when he got orders to Iraq, leaving his wife, young son and fledgling business behind.

``I tried not to stay too attached to what was going on on a daily basis,'' Page said of the store. ``But it's my baby. We sunk every stinkin' penny we had to get this thing running and so to say, 'Well, I'll not worry about it too much while I'm over here getting shot at, that's probably more important,' you can say that, but you can't do it.''

More than 160,000 National Guard and Reserve troops are deployed in active duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle, said Retired Col. Gary Jackson, executive director of the Oklahoma Committee of the Employer Support of the National Guard and Reserve.

The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that 70 percent of military reservists or about 120,000 troops are employed by small- or medium-size companies. While some programs are available to aid business owners, hardships still await.

The 'baby' Page speaks of is Great Plains Purified Water Co. in Norman, a store he and his wife, Karen Page, own and operate. Both are type-A personalities with an entrepreneurial drive, she said. While living in San Diego, the couple frequented water stores, places where water was purified on-site and available to customers to carry out.

Ron Page could wake up early in the morning to call his wife and check on how things had gone at the store that day.

Karen Page's schedule was packed with managing the business, her other job and caring for the couple's 2-year-old son. She didn't watch a minute of television the eight months her husband was gone.

``The stress level that we both ran at was pretty exhausting,'' said Ron Page.

Some programs are in place to aid reservists who own a business or are self-employed, but for the most part this small segment of the population's struggles go unnoticed. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 ensures reservists are not discriminated against by employers because of their military status.

The Employer Support of the Reserve and Guard (ESGR) is an organization that assists employers and military personnel and enforces those regulations.

Ret. Col. Gary Jackson, executive director of the Oklahoma committee of ESGR, said since the organization focuses on keeping employers in line with the law and ensuring reservists return to their jobs, there is not much they can do financially for small businesses or self-employed guardsmen.

``(ESGR) is out there to make sure employers support the guard and reserve. Well, I happen to be the employer in this case and I very much support the Guard and reserve, but if I go out of business there's no way I can guarantee my job is there when I get back,'' Ron Page said.

The Small Business Administration makes available the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan (MREIDL). The program, started in 1998, is a source of working capital to businesses whose owners or key employees are deployed, said Jim Atkins, public information officer at the Dallas/Fort Worth SBA Disaster Area 3 Office.

Most of the activity in the program has been in recent years, but it is still not one of the SBA's bigger loan programs, Atkins said. That's because small business owners try to operate with as little debt as possible, he said.

The SBA has approved three loans to Oklahoma businesses to date. Texas had five loans approved. Ohio and California had the highest number of loans granted.

Mark Rodgers, a technical sergeant in the Air Force, and fellow airman Mark Brown are self-professed car enthusiasts.

The creation of their business, Problast, was a comedy of errors, Rodgers said.

In 2000, the men learned about a new process for automotive restoration called soda blasting. A Tecumseh body shop pointed them up the street in the direction of a shop that did the process.

``We intended to go buy some equipment, but wound up buying them out,'' Rodgers said. ``Our business has grown ever since.''

Four years later, Problast based in Tecumseh has two more employees. They remove a variety of coatings from practically anything. Services range from graffiti removal to repairing fire and smoke damage.

Rodgers' and Brown's unit was activated around Sept. 19, 2001. Both fly AWACS or Airborne Warning and Control Systems, out of Tinker Air Force Base. They served 60- to 90-day rotations for two years.

``It was rather difficult,'' Rodgers said. ``Fortunately, we were able to work things out and rely on our employees.''

E-mail proved a lifeline between the deployed business owners and stateside employees.

Problast employees kept the business running while the owners were away, but with half the work force absent it was impossible to take on new customers.

To stay afloat, Rodgers and Brown took advantage of the Soldier's and Sailor's Civil Relief Act, which allows lower interest payments on things such as credit card debt and the SBA's loan program.

``It was crazy,'' Rodgers said. ``It took a couple months to recover. We're behind in marketing the business. Two years away is a lot of catching up to do.''

Despite the complications and setbacks of deployment, some small business owners say they are ready to step up to the challenge again.

``I'm very proud of what we've done. I have no regrets and would do it all over again,'' Rodgers said.
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