John Roscoe of Swedesboro trained hard over the last 70 days at Fort Sill, Okla., and isn't worried about heading to Iraq this month. The Army private is more concerned about finding employment when he returns in nine months.
For now, deployment means employment.
"I volunteered to go, and one of the biggest reasons is the economy," said the 26-year-old, who recently lost a private security job. "It's an entire year I'm getting paid and don't have to worry about looking for a job."
One comrade, Sgt. Rockyfeller Mensah of Atco, is hoping to hold on to his civilian job. "I'm real, real concerned with everybody losing their jobs," said the 43-year-old sanitation truck driver. "I hope I can come back to work again."
Mensah and Roscoe, a recent college student, yesterday were among more than 250 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard's 150th Assault Helicopter Battalion who took part in a farewell ceremony - attended by Gov. Corzine - at Fort Sill.
The unit is part of the 2,500-member Task Force Keystone, which includes 1,000 from the Pennsylvania National Guard. Some of Keystone's pilots, mechanics, payroll clerks, cooks, doctors and chaplains are already in Iraq.
The citizen soldiers have left or lost jobs or put off college to serve. About a third of them - who held higher-income jobs - will see smaller paychecks while the rest will earn the same or more.
"I am proud to command such a fine Air and Army Guard and I am grateful for your sacrifice," Corzine told Guard members at yesterday's ceremony. "While you are focused on your mission and unit, know that this administration is deeply committed to caring for your families and also with working with your employers to make sure that your jobs will still be there upon your return home."
Employers are required by law to hold the jobs of active-duty soldiers, but they can still cut them if they show the positions would have been lost as part of company-wide force reductions, said retired Army Col. Carmen Venticinque, chairman of the New Jersey Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department-funded advocacy organization with branches across the country.
"When that happens, we can't do anything about that," he said. In other cases, "we talk to employers and soldiers, and most of the time, we resolve the problem. Some smaller companies without human resource departments don't know the law."
When employment issues can't be resolved, they are turned over to the U.S. Department of Labor for investigation and mediation, said Venticinque. If the problem persists, it's turned over to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution.
Some soldiers in Task Force Keystone had already been let go "because their companies are eliminating jobs altogether," said Pennsylvania National Guard Sgt. Matt Jones, 23, of Harrisburg. "They can justify it by saying the jobs would be been eliminated whether they were here or not.
"But we have ways of helping them find jobs when they come home."
Jones and the rest of the brigade-size aviation task force are scheduled to return in January. The largest concentration of units is from the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, headquartered at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
"For me, the concern is over the budget cuts that are taking place in New Jersey," said Sgt. Ed Smith, 39, a Camden native who plans to return to classes at Camden County College. "People are being laid off in the state and private sector."
The bad economy "shrinks the job possibilities when we get out in the real world, so I am concerned about it personally. It will be a challenge to land any job," he said.
Smith was working as a civilian public affairs representative for the New Jersey National Guard when he was called up for duty. He wants to get degrees in information technology and administrative leadership.
"The more employable you are, the better your chances for getting a job," he said.
Officers in the task force such as Army Lt. Col John Scannell of Medford are more concerned about the younger soldiers than themselves. "I have some kids who came from basic training and haven't had a chance to start civilian lives with full-time employment," he said. "In this economic downturn, you want to see them get entry-level positions."
Scannell, 45, a civilian facility supervisor overseeing pilot training and maintenance for the New Jersey Guard, said the soldiers "have tried to make sure their families are taken care of. Now, they're focused on the events in front of them."
The task force will be spread out across Iraq and Kuwait but will be based out of Joint Base Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The Guard members will use Chinook, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters to transport troops, ground vehicles, supplies and dignitaries.
"There will be changes in the economy over the year," said Scannell, who has a "supportive" wife and three boys, ages 6, 10 and 12. "My hope is that things will turn around and people will have jobs to come back to."