VILLAS, N.J. – When Jonathan Hinker found out his New Jersey National Guard unit was going to Iraq, he had less than a day to figure out what to do with Victorian Cape Limousine, the company he'd started from scratch. With family help, he tried to keep the business going while he was away, but still ended up $25,000 in debt, almost all his customers gone and working a second job to make ends meet.
"I lost big time," said Hinker, 36, from his south Jersey home. In his spacious yard, a Town Car, a limousine and a super-super-stretch, SUV-style limousine sit – the last of seven vehicles he's selling to make ends meet. "I just crossed my fingers that it would be OK,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice more than others."
Going to war isn't easy for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for people in the National Guard and military reserves who own businesses.
At a time when the Pentagon is relying on such forces in greater number and for longer periods of time than ever before, these soldiers don't get the same guarantees as people who work for companies or government. They often take a great economic risk to serve their country.
As of January, there were 2,276 New Jersey residents mobilized in the reserves or National Guard, mostly in Iraq, according to Wayne Girardet of New Jersey's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Roughly 5% to 10% of those soldiers are small-business owners in their civilian life, military officials said. By law, companies and government offices who employ National Guardsmen and reservists must hold their jobs open for them while they're mobilized.
Small business owners have no such guarantees. They still have to make payments on things like equipment or rent, and while they can ask customers to remain loyal, there's no guarantee they won't go elsewhere.
"You're almost guaranteed an income loss," said Lt. Col. Henry Schepens, who works with the family assistance program, which helps National Guardsmen.
In Hinker's case, his former wife and brother took over the running of the business, but the bills kept climbing: $6,000 a month in car payments on his seven vehicles and $3,000 a month for insurance. When longtime clients didn't get the service they were used to, they left.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, balancing a small business with membership in the National Guard or reserves was easier. The standard commitment was one weekend a month and two weeks of training. There was always the possibility of getting mobilized, but it was usually for a short-term stint to help out with hurricanes or floods.
A few options exist now to help these business owners. The Small Business Administration has a program to help National Guard and reserve business owners by giving qualified applicants low-interest loans; a little more than $21 million has been given out nationwide since the program began in 2002. But people already going through financial difficulty – like Hinker when he came back to $25,000 in debt – have trouble qualifying.
In New Jersey, the National Guard State Family Readiness Council, a private organization that helps guard members and their families, started a program this year to give grants of up to $5,000 to qualifying businesses, although no grants have yet been given out.