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Sheriff’s Department nominated for Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award

NEWFANE—The Windham County Sheriff’s Department is one of seven employers in Vermont nominated for the 2013 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award.

The Freedom Award is the Department of Defense’s highest recognition for employers supporting employees serving in the National Guard and Reserve. Up to 15 award recipients will be announced this summer and honored in Washington, D.C., later this year at the 18th annual Freedom Award ceremony. Employers are nominated for the award by Guard and Reserve Service members, or family members acting on their behalf.

This honor means a lot to Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, as he and several other members of the department over the past decade have been called up to active duty to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I have a personal understanding about how it is,” said Clark, who retired last July from the Vermont Army National Guard as a captain. His more than 20 years of military service include active duty and National Guard service in both the Air Force and the Army.

Clark’s last overseas assignment was in 2010, when he and 1,500 Vermont Army National Guard members deployed to Afghanistan with the Guard’s 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

“With the way the military is structured now, nearly half of it is made up of the Guard and Reserve,” Clark said. “They come to really rely on us, and that means we get called away to serve more often.”

Although federal laws protect the jobs of Guard and Reserve members when they get called to active duty, not every employer readily cooperates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for Guard and Reserve members was 11 percent as of February, and 18 percent for enlisted personnel below the rank of sergeant.

To Clark, employers need to “do all they can to support service members and their families” when an employee is called to active duty. “It’s important for them to know that their job is secure and that will be welcomed back with open arms when they return.”

That’s the mindset Clark said that his department operates with. “It’s the least we can do,” he said.

It’s not unusual for members of public safety and law enforcement agencies to also serve in the Guard and Reserve, Clark said.

“They both have a lot in common, especially when it comes to the desire to serve others,” said Clark.

Clark said he doesn’t know which of his deputies nominated the department for the award, but he said that “it is an honor to know someone thinks that highly of us to nominate us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #197 (Wednesday, April 3, 2013).

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