Defense Secretary Ash Carter honored 15 companies with the 2016 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award for their exemplary support this year of employees who also are members of the National Guard or reserve.
The award is the highest form of recognition given by the U.S. government to civilian employers for their support of guard and reserve members and their families.
The 21st annual ceremony, held at the Pentagon, included leaders from the DoD Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program, or ESGR, previous award recipients, current and former DoD personnel, and guard members and reservists and their family and friends.
Carter also welcomed country music artist Lee Greenwood to the award ceremony, and afterward Greenwood closed the event with a song and made remarks.
"For more than 40 years," Carter said as he opened the ceremony, "ESGR has encouraged and worked with employers around the country to strengthen their support for their employees who serve in the guard and reserves, and our entire country is stronger for it."
That can be seen, he added, "in the awesome performance of our guard and reserve, particularly over the past 15 years. We see it in the more than 4,500 ESGR volunteers nationwide who donate their time to this important cause and to ensuring that our guardsmen and reservists not only retain their current jobs but find new ones."
It can be seen in Louisiana over the past two weeks, the secretary said, where more than 3,500 guardsmen have been responding to unprecedented flooding, helping rescue thousands of people, providing meals, bottles of water, cots, blankets, tarps, sandbags and much more.
The 15 finalists were drawn from more than 2,400 nominations, and Carter said these reflect the breadth and depth of what the nation's employers -- recognized or not -- do for guard and reserve members.
All those nominations, he added, represent everyone in companies that support employees who serve their country as citizen-soldiers, -sailors, -airmen and -Marines -- bosses and supervisors, coworkers, human resources departments and others -- because they know that hiring these Americans is patriotic and the smart thing to do for their businesses.
Vital Operational Reserve
To the guard and reserve members in the audience, Carter said, "Many of you have responded when we needed you most, perhaps never more so than over the last 15 years."
Since 9/11, more than 777,000 guard and reserve personnel deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many more than once, the secretary said. The guard and reserve are critical components of the total force and a vital operational reserve that brings to bear the experience and skills of America's citizen-warriors, wherever and whenever they're needed, to confront the challenges of a complex world, he said.
"Thanks to employers like the ones we're recognizing today, our guardsmen and reservists have the flexibility and the training they need to accomplish their mission. They're able to have time off before and after deployment," Carter said, "and they have a job to go back to when they come home."
Some employers -- especially the 15 being honored today, Carter said -- go above and beyond that level of support.
"One shipped 2,000 pounds of household goods for their reservist employee. Another employer heard that his National Guard employee -- who already had been deployed for eight months -- would need to be out for six more months to heal from a deployment injury, and so he offered to pay the employee's college expenses," the secretary added.
Another employer got creative, Carter said, giving new meaning to workplace flexibility by joining his employees in warrior yoga sessions to help returning service members deal with post-traumatic stress.
Such organizations are setting the standard for employer support to guard and reserve members, Carter said, and that leadership helps bring the country together.
"We live at a time when less than 1 percent of our population serves in uniform, which means fewer people are connected to those who do," Carter said.
"We need to keep building bridges to our fellow citizens and communities that aren't as connected to those who serve and sacrifice on their behalf," he added. "Our guard and reserve and their employers, especially our awardees, build those bridges every day."
2016 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award Recipients:
-- Alaska Airlines of Anchorage, Alaska, nominated by the Air Force Reserve. -- Albuquerque Police Department of New Mexico nominated by the Air National Guard. -- Benjamin Franklin Plumbing of Springfield, Missouri, nominated by the Navy Reserve. -- Burford Corporation of Maysville, Oklahoma, nominated by the Army National Guard. -- Carolinas Healthcare System of Charlotte, North Carolina, nominated by the Air National Guard. -- Clackamas County Sheriff's Office of Oregon City, Oregon, nominated by the Army National Guard -- Delmarva Veteran Builders of Salisbury, Maryland, nominated by the Air Force Reserve. -- FASTSIGNS International Inc. of Carrollton, Texas, nominated by the Air Force Reserve. -- Hope Valley Industries of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, nominated by the Air National Guard. -- Idaho State Police of Meridian, Idaho, nominated by the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. -- Lowe's of Mooresville, North Carolina, nominated by the Navy Reserve. -- Maryland State Police of Pikesville, Maryland, nominated by the Army Reserve. -- Prairie Grove Consolidated School District 46 of Crystal Lake, Illinois, nominated by the Marine Corps Reserve. -- Seattle Fire Department in Washington State nominated by the Navy Reserve. -- Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, nominated by the Navy Reserve.