Most guard soldiers, when they’re not training or going on extended military assignment overseas, are activated for short 1-to-2-week stints, responding to natural disasters or beefing up security for vast city-engulfing events like political conventions. The exception, locally, is those who sign up for three-month rotations in the “Joint Task Force – Empire Shield.” It’s a pretty plumb assignment for a certain kind of soldier: you work five days, are on call for the other two, get paid $125 a day for the whole week, and are eligible for a housing allowance. Over the past seven years, many Guard soldiers have signed up for one stint after another.
Tammy Sullivan had recently graduated Queens College in 2008 and didn't know what her next move was. She was a member of the Guard and had done Empire Shield patrols part-time and thought going full-time for three months or more would be a good way to earn money, while figuring out her next career move. She says no one told her about pregnancy tests officially, when she went on active duty, but there were rumors. After a couple days, she and other women soldiers were brought in and told to sign forms agreeing to take a test right away or not be allowed to serve on active duty. The form said these soldiers, if pregnant when they took the test or got pregnant at any point during their 90-day service, would not be entitled to any civilian healthcare provided by New York State, and would not be eligible to re-enlist for three more months of active duty.
The form, she said, didn’t have any official seal or document number and looked like it had been written on Microsoft Word in someone’s office. Take a look at the attachments, and compare the original Statement of Understanding she and other soldiers had to sign, compared with the new one.
Sullivan thought the test invasive and the blanket treatment of all pregnant women – whether in Month One or Month Eight – was inappropriate. She wasn’t pregnant and didn’t have any intention of getting pregnant. Other women soldiers needed the job too badly to rock the boat, especially in the current economy. But Sullivan figured she had other options, so she took her objections to her commanding officers and brought the issue to the state National Guard’s Inspector General’s office. Everyone told her she had no choice but to sign or step down.
She brought the matter to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which turned to the state Department of Homeland Security, in Albany. Officials there were sincerely surprised, an NYCLU attorney said, and pledged to review the policy and change it.
The new policy is gender-neutral. Both men and women, before they go on Empire Shield 90-day active duty, will have to sign a Statement of Understanding that discusses their capacity to serve physically. A woman in advance pregnancy indeed might still have to give up the assignment and return to inactive duty, but so would a man who was also physically incapacitated for any reason.
A spokesman for the New York National Guard said the original policy had been drawn up in haste after September 11th and had not gone through all the proper personnel and legal channels, because these extended Empire Shield rotations were new and unusual, and because they involved relatively few people – 280 soldiers, currently, statewide, about 40 of whom are women.
The spokesman said that in other military assignments, when a Guard unit is attached for an extended time to a large military unit, it is standard for women soldiers to go on ‘light duty’ in their seventh month of pregnancy. But, he said, the way Empire Shield is configured, there are no desk jobs. Everyone patrols.
Tammy Sullivan says that’s not always how it was, and that previously there were at least a couple dozen administrative desk jobs.
She’s currently on inactive duty, attached to a unit in upstate New York that provides information to and about soldiers who are deploying and returning. She finishes her service in 2010 and currently has no plans to re-enlist.