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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 09:31 am

Feats of strength

Military police say fitness requirement could cost jobs

When Gregg Hinds was found to have throat cancer in 2003, he underwent surgery, then 30 doses of radiation. Within weeks, though, he was back at work with the military-security police at the 183rd Air National Guard base. It’s a job that Hinds loves — and one that can mean anything from unadulterated boredom (staring at jets parked on a runway or, worse yet, at a bare runway) to holding a high-powered rifle in a guard tower, ensuring the safety of the nation’s president as he arrives in Air Force One. Hinds, 52, has worked for the Air National Guard for almost 30 years. In 2003, he retired from the military service but stayed on the job as a state employee — an option many MSPs choose to give younger guard members the chance to advance up the ranks. These militarily retired police officers perform the same duties at the 183rd base as their active-duty counterparts do — in fact, last year Hinds was named MSP officer of the year. But now Hinds and a handful of MSPs like him could be fired if they can’t pass the same physical-fitness test required for active-duty guard members. Unlike active members, who get two years to show improvement if they take the test and fail, these retired MSPs will have to pass the test within 45 days. This requirement, which went into effect Feb. 1, is just one of several changes brought by new management at the 183rd. Supervisors have been stripped of their leadership roles, and new policies implementing certain military customs and courtesies have put veteran officers in the uncomfortable position of taking orders from young, inexperienced pups. But those changes just bruise the ego; having to pass the physical agility test is, one retired officer says, a professional “death sentence.” Dave Hollinshead, one of the MSPs affected by these changes, suspects that age discrimination and the fact that the officers unionized were factors in these policy changes. An Air National Guard publication explaining the physical-agility test specifies that it applies to all Air National Guard active-reserve and traditional members. In a section listing exemptions, the booklet states that guard members planning to retire within six months are “exempt from fitness assessments.” So far, none of the MSPs has been given a physical-fitness test, and it’s possible that some would have nothing to worry about if a test were administered tomorrow. “None of the guys look like they’d knock you down to steal your corn dog,” says Hinds’ wife, Tammy Hinds. Lt. Col. Tim Franklin, public-affairs officer for the Illinois National Guard, says that no one from the command can discuss the issue. In an e-mail response to questions from Illinois Times, Franklin wrote: “Two grievances have been filed regarding this position description. Until the grievance process is completed, it is not appropriate at this time for the Illinois National Guard or Department of Military Affairs to comment.” Al Pieper, president of the Springfield Area Trades and Labor Council, says that the union has been trying to negotiate with the MSPs’ chain of command for several months, but although relations seem friendly, the results have been disappointing. Several meetings have been scheduled, only to be cordially canceled by management. “I feel like I’ve been led astray a couple of times by the management guys,” Pieper says. The oldsters aren’t the only ones upset by the policy changes. A younger active-duty officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that the retired MSPs are being singled out. “It’s almost as if there’s a double standard,” he says. “These guys have been out there; they’ve done this job for some time — and when I’m in a dilemma, I go to them. They’re a bundle of knowledge. I love these guys to death.”
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