City of Kalamazoo Recipient of the 2012 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award
Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 20, 2012 – When Army Reservist Keaton Nielsen’s right hand was severely maimed in a 2009 munitions accident in Afghanistan; it could have ended his career as a Kalamazoo Public Safety officer.
But an unusual get-well gift, frequent Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) care packages and a city-sponsored trip by several Kalamazoo co-workers when the recovering soldier arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center all bolstered Nielsen’s determination to get back on the street, despite 18 surgeries to rebuild his dominant hand.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the city has gone beyond what the law requires for all its activated service personnel, supplementing their lower military pay checks and continuing benefits to assure no active-duty employee suffers income loss while serving the country.
That commitment received national recognition today when the City of Kalamazoo joined an elite group of 160 American employers that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense over the past 43 years for “exceptional support” of employees serving in the military reserves or National Guard.
Kalamazoo was one of just 15 employers selected for 2012 awards from more than 3,200 nominations submitted nationwide this year by guardsmen, reservists or their family members.
Kalamazoo representatives accepted the Employer Support Freedom Award in Washington, D.C. ceremonies today that included a private meeting with General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This year’s award winners ranged from large corporations like Caterpillar, Siemens and Verizon Wireless to a small, Mississippi church. Uniform Color Co., of Holland, was the only other Michigan honoree.
Todd Christensen, a recently retired KDPS officer, police academy instructor and an Army Reserve master sergeant who served with Nielsen in Afghanistan, nominated the City of Kalamazoo.
According to the Defense Department, the Freedom Award honors employers who “have even gone above and beyond what is expected of employers, helping to restore stability, predictability and peace of mind for those employees who stand ready to serve when their nation calls upon them.”
Federal law requires employers to hold jobs for employees who are called to active military service. However, many military families suffer financial hardships because service pay can fall well short of what they would earn in their civilian jobs.
Jerome Post, city human resources director, said former Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Dan Weston first instituted supplemental pay, continued benefits and seniority credit for his personnel called to active duty after 9/11.
“After Ken Collard became city manager, his response was that this should be codified not only for public safety, but for any city employee called for military service,” Post said.
Supplemental pay relieved some of Nielsen’s financial stress while in Afghanistan and during long months of physical recovery. But that was just the beginning of the support the soldier received.
KDPS personnel send regular care packages to officers deployed from its ranks.
“We could put in a call to the department and tell them we needed school supplies for Afghan kids or clothing to distribute to the people and there was never any hesitation,” Nielsen said. “Every other week we’d get a box filled with anything from baked goods to protein bars or other things they thought we could use. When you’re over there, it wouldn’t matter if they had filled it with used Kleenex; you knew they were thinking of you.”
It was another package--one that raised eyebrows at Walter Reed--that reassured the wounded warrior he could eventually return to the streets of Kalamazoo and not a KDPS desk job.
Nielsen recalls being called to the hospital’s security office when screeners found an unopened package addressed to Nielsen appeared to contain a firearm.
KDPS Assistant Chief Brian Uridge had sent Nielsen a left-handed holster and a plastic, training firearm, encouraging Nielsen to use it in therapy to retrain himself to become a proficient southpaw shooter.
Christensen also experienced the city’s support during his own deployments, ranging from supplemental pay to fellow officers handling home chores like lawn mowing and snow removal while he was in the Middle East. Christensen said a video created by KDPS Crime Lab specialists that featured greetings from officers back home “really helped me get over the loneliness factor” a world away in Afghanistan.
Nielsen and Christensen say City of Kalamazoo employees deserve the Defense Department recognition.
“I’ve talked to a lot of reserves who have been injured and no one has had the support from their employers that I’ve had,” said Nielsen who’s returned to patrol and training other officers. “This place has been pretty awesome.”
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