From War To Work

John Flor, right, seated in the same work space he left before serving 22 months in Iraq with the National Guard, talks to Allianz manager Amy Gunderson, at Allianz Life Insurance in Minneapolis, Wed., Oct. 3. 2007. Returning to work, he said, made him feel like "Rip Van Winkle." (AP Photo/Janet Hostetter)
John Flor's return to work after a 22-month Army National Guard deployment, spent mostly in Iraq, made him feel "like Rip Van Winkle."

"It's like waking up from a two-year hiatus or dream," Flor said. "Everything looks familiar, there's a lot of friendly faces." But a lot had changed: His company had a new CEO and a new reporting structure and he was managing a new team.

"You do need a lot of time to work back into things," he said.

Roughly 1.4 million U.S. forces have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the law, those who left jobs when they were deployed have the right, in all but the rarest circumstances, to get them back. But there's little help or guidance for companies or employees to handle deployments and returns.

Flor's employer, Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, based in Golden Valley, Minn., tried to make deployment as easy on Flor and his family as possible. Now, almost three months after he returned, his manager said there's a few things she'd do differently.

On his first day back at work, July 23, roughly 500 Allianz people crowded the floor and gave him a standing ovation. His manager, Amy Gunderson, gave a speech welcoming him back, as did the company CEO. Joking that he was used to wearing a uniform, they gave him some Allianz golf shirts. They presented the flag they'd flown over the building while he was gone.

"The whole first day was a lot of fanfare," Gunderson said. "Once the fanfare left off, I'm thinking, 'Now what do I do?"'

Flor was called up in August 2005. "As a manager, I was absolutely stunned when John came into the office with his orders," Gunderson said.

Flor, she said, is a "go-to" manager, one of her seven team managers overseeing an 80-person call center that assists the life insurance company's 170,000 independent agents with things like product questions, sales ideas and supplies.

At Gunderson's suggestion, he prepared to hand off all his responsibilities to another manager within a week of getting orders so he could spend as much time as possible with wife, Nicole, and three young daughters.

"He wanted to tie up a lot of loose ends," Gunderson said. "I was pushing: 'Your family comes first.' We had to figure out some things after the fact."

Flor spent eight months training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Then he spent the next 14 months in Camp Anaconda in Northern Iraq, where his team ran a 911 operations center, which coordinated medevac helicopters, ground quick-reaction forces and attack aviation. The center would take calls if there was a bombing, or a convoy came under fire.

His work team sent him care packages, co-workers sent him cards and e-mails and the company paid his annual bonus. Gunderson bought 20 cards at a time and wrote reminders on her calendar to send a card or picture. If she didn't get an e-mail from him for a few weeks, she'd write saying, jokingly, "I'm your boss, no matter where you are in the world. If I don't hear back from you, I'm going to fire you."

Allianz Life executives had reassured him his job would be waiting for him, Flor said, and that promise was something some peers serving in Iraq missed.

"Knowing a senior leader in the company is personally keeping in touch is pretty reassuring," he said. "It's a model a lot of companies could follow."

The 2006 unemployment rate for all veterans, 3.8 percent, was lower than the national rate, but the rate for veterans 20-24 years old was 10.4 percent, according to the Current Population Survey.

While large companies are doing well bringing back employees who were deployed, smaller businesses sometimes can't afford to keep a position open, said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"There's a tremendous amount of inconsistency with employers," he said.