January 28, 2003 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

If you're a local business owner, the National Guard wants to help you — especially if you have an employee in the militia.

That worker could be called to serve on short notice, business people and reservists were told last week at a breakfast at the National Guard armory in La Grande.

"Things have changed since 9-11," Lt. Col. Dan McCabe, commander of the local unit of the 116th Cavalry unit, told the 50 people attending.

"We have refocused our training strategy," he said.

Now members of units throughout Oregon will not only have the two-week summer training sessions in Boise, all units of the battalion will train for six days in March in tank warfare.

The training in gunnery use on tanks is pretty serious stuff, considering the world situation, McCabe said. The results or grades of the guard members tank training will be reviewed all the way up to and including the Pentagon, he said.

Units throughout the state will be in Boise March 12-28, with the La Grande unit in training there from March 15-20.

During the breakfast in La Grande, guard officials stressed that they were aware of the importance of employees to local businesses and want to help ease the pain of losing a worker to active duty.

Jack Johnson of Cove, chairman of Area 6 of the Department of Defense's Oregon Committee, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserves, called ESGR, said, "We believe if there is a way to communicate with the employer, the problem will go away. We want to let the employer know there is someone in the guard to talk to."

McCabe said, "we want to try to eliminate the issues." But he said, guard units in the past have been deployed to Japan, Europe, the Mid-East. They recently have fought forest fires, participated in mountain rescues, assisted in airport security and helped provide security at the 2002 winter Olympics.

Guardsmen are normally called up for no more than 21 days, he said, but in an unusual situation such as the forest fires of Oregon last summer, some served for 51 consecutive days, McCabe said.

One of the employers attending the local meeting was Wes Faulk of Gem Stop on Island Avenue, who is supportive of the Guard.

"I got a lot out of the meeting," he said later. In fact, he said, he went to a similar four-day presentation in Colorado Springs, Colo., last year.

Faulk is fairly typical of local companies with a small number of employees. Ryan Bennetto, who has worked at Gem Stop for a couple of years, took time off to fight forest fires last summer and spent six months in Georgia for basic training when he first joined the guard.

"We pretty much fill in with part-time help while he's gone," Faulk said.

McCabe said that of the almost $2.3 million in salaries paid to guard members in Union County in the fiscal year ending Sept. 31, 2001, "about 85 percent is spent in the community and the money turns over 2.56 times in the community."

McCabe told the employers that having people in the guard has several advantages.

"We provide life-long leadership training, which is very beneficial to a lot of employers. We push on our people such traits as dependability, loyalty, self-reliance and confidence.

"And they are trained in basic first aid and are drug free. We test once a year for drugs," McCabe said.