HE GOES TO WAR; SHE FIGHTS HER OWN

This is a story about a job and a soldier and how one Michigan woman had to say good-bye to both.

Suzette and Jerry Boler have been married 22 years. They have children and grandchildren. As a member of the National Guard, Jerry, a mechanic, recently was called up to serve in Iraq. Suzette wanted to be with him before he left.

So she notified her employer, Benefit Management Administrators, in Caledonia. Boler, 40, worked part-time as a receptionist, answering phones and opening mail. She was paid, she says, $9 an hour, to work Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

She was granted three days off, without pay, to accompany Jerry to Indiana, where his unit was stationed, before he left for Ft. Dix. She says she told her human resources person that she might not be able to get back on Monday, as his actual departure was sometime on Sunday.

“I promised I would be back on Tuesday morning,” she says. And the HR person “said do your best.”

On Monday, Boler says, she was too exhausted and emotionally spent to go to work. That afternoon, she got a call from the human resources person.

“She told me I was terminated,” Boler says. “I was flabbergasted. … I said, ‘Are you firing me?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you’re fired.’ “

An unfortunate confrontation

The next day, Boler and her father went to the office. They asked to speak with the president of the company, Henry Bledsoe. Things got emotional. Voices were raised.

“His comment was I was supposed to be there three days a week, and if I couldn’t handle that, he’d find somebody that would,” Boler says.

“He said my husband was just going to war. He wasn’t dead yet.”

He wasn’t dead yet? That seemed hard to believe. So I called Bledsoe. And, after a public relations man called me back – he said he’d been hired to deal with the fallout – Bledsoe himself called. Not surprisingly, his story was different.

He claimed Boler was a less-than-ideal employee who used the fax machines, phones and Internet for excessive private use. He claimed that she’d taken “half-days” off before and that “we were going to fire her a couple of times” but decided to “extend her mercy one more time.”

But when I asked if he’d actually said “he’s not dead yet” about her husband, he did not deny it. He said that Boler was “wailing” and he was trying to calm things down.

It didn’t work.

No winners, only losers

Boler went to the media. And the media came crashing down on Bledsoe and his company. Boler insists she had no idea her job was on the line or she would have made it in no matter what. Bledsoe, who admits “I probably should have picked my words better,” still insists “we bent over backwards for Suzette. … There comes a time to say we’ve got a company to run.”

In the end, everybody suffers. And it makes you wonder why companies that can handle the most complex transactions in cyberspace can’t master common sense down here on Earth.

If Bledsoe’s company had “endured” Boler for that long, why not let her come back after her husband’s departure to see whether things improved? Didn’t anyone realize it was cruel to fire someone less than a day after her husband left to fight a war?

Bledsoe told me he and his brothers had all served proudly in the military. He said this as a defense.

But last week I spoke with another military man, a reservist who’d finished a year in Iraq. He said the day his unit moved into its quarters, a friend was killed by a rocket. The first day. He was stunned. He thought there would be a grace period before the killing began.

War knows nothing about grace periods.

But a company should.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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