Double Duty: Agent-Soldiers Who Serve Their Country and Their Customers

By | May 10, 2007

Twenty-nine year old Peter Webb served his country in the U.S. Marines for eight years. Since then, Sergeant Webb has spent four years serving small businesses as an account manager and producer for an Oklahoma City independent agency. Now just as his insurance career is solidifying, Webb is facing deployment to Iraq within the year as a a member of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

Colonel Frank Caruso, insurance agency owner, knows what Webb is going through. As a member of the New Jersey National Guard since 1966, he’s had to take time out of his insurance operations to, among other things, guard enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a year.

Command Sergeant Major and Connecticut insurance agent Todd Smith also understands. A 25-year veteran of the Guard, Smith’s insurance work was interrupted to provide security for the 2002 Olympic Games and other assignments.

These insurance agent-Guard soldiers are among the tens of thousands of civilians who fulfill military obligations along with their family and business commitments. Along the way, their careers and families may face disruptions, but they stick it out. They are proud to serve double duty and believe they benefit from the dual challenge.

Joining the military
For their Guard service, members earn a salary that varies by rank and years of service and today many are also eligible to receive sign-on bonuses, loan repayments, college funding and other incentives. But the agents say that the money alone is not what motivated them to join the military years ago or what convinced them to stay in despite the dangerous nature of the work and the challenges to their careers and families.

Webb jokes that he was “young and dumb” when at age 18 he joined the Marines right out of high school. “I was gung-ho and ready to go into combat and all that,” says the former goalie for his Rye, N.Y., hockey team.

His attitude definitely changed after boot camp — “I learned the reality that it’s not like in the movies or anything” — and has matured even more since he joined the Guard two years ago. “I’d rather go into the service so that someone else I know and care about doesn’t have to … but that’s bigger now for me than it probably was in high school,” Webb says.

When Colonel Caruso was 18, he did not have as much choice as Webb did since the military draft was operational. “My classmates were going in, everybody went. You either enlisted or were drafted,” he recalls. He decided not to wait for the draft board to call and signed up with the New Jersey Guard infantry unit stationed in his hometown. He took his basic training in California.

Command Sergeant Major Smith volunteered for the Guard in 1978, after the Vietnam War and the draft had ended. Military service was not high in public opinion then but Smith didn’t care. “I always wanted to be a soldier. That was part of my motivation,” says the veteran. “I just felt that I had an obligation to my country.” Smith enlisted in 169th Infantry Battalion of the Connecticut Guard as a unit armorer/supplyman.

The agency business
While their second careers may be unusual, the routes these men took to get to where they are and the duties they shoulder in the agency business are typical of many agents.

In 1974, Caruso joined the Albert V. Jaskol Insurance Agency in Burlington in southern New Jersey. When the agency owner died in 1984, Caruso and a business partner bought the agency. Since 1991, Colonel Caruso has been the sole owner, managing the business and a staff of three while keeping his commitment to the military.

Command Sergeant Major Smith got his first taste of the insurance business as a teenager working part time for his father’s agency in the old mill town of Willimantic, Conn. Since 1978, he’s been at it full-time as personal lines manager, except when the military has called. Today he and two brothers, Garth and Drake, run K.L. Smith Agency, which he describes as a typical Main Street agency.

Fresh from the Marines, Sergeant Webb was quoting personal lines policies for The Hartford about four years ago when a friend told him about C.L. Frates & Co., an Oklahoma City insurance agency and risk management firm looking for someone to manage accounts for its small business unit. Webb focuses on smaller accounts, while fellow producers at C.L. Frates target larger trucking and energy risks. In addition to handling the prospecting and sales, he also is responsible for service on existing accounts.

Olympics and Guantanamo
The world as a whole and the life of all Guard members changed after Sept. 11. As Smith describes it, “Soldiers were told, ‘Get ready because you’re going.’ We had to get ourselves ready, get our families ready. That’s the way it is being a citizen soldier; that’s who we are in the National Guard.”

Each state has its own National Guard composed of civilians who agree to serve a minimum of one weekend each month and two weeks in the summer. The higher Guard members they rise in the ranks, the more time they expend on military affairs. “Not a day goes by when you don’t do something,” according to Caruso.

The time commitment can quickly shift to full-time if the Guard is called to active duty. Following Sept. 11, more than 50,000 Guard members were called up. The Guard also deployed more than 50,000 troops following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today, tens of thousands of Guard members are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guard civilian-soldiers live every day with the knowledge they could at any time be called up and even sent to war.

The year Smith began in insurance full-time, 1978, was the same year he started serving in the Connecticut Guard. The Guard has handed Smith some of its more dangerous assignments including jobs in field artillery, engineering, medical and chemical battalions. He has emerged without injury, although there were some close calls such as the time artillery exploded within yards of him and his men at Fort Drum and the time he was nearly run over by a tank.

Smith was called to state active duty in 1990 and then to both state and federal active duty in 2002, when he was sent to Salt Lake City for 33 days to provide security for the Olympic Games during a period of high terrorism alert.

Caruso served 13 years as an enlisted soldier, holding positions as rifleman, vehicle mechanic, recovery vehicle driver, and track commander in his New Jersey unit. Then in 1979 he entered Officer Candidate School, graduating in 1980 as a 2nd Lieutenant at the top of his class. Caruso has been honored with numerous awards, including the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Achievement Medal and National Defense Services Medal.

Soon after Sept. 11, Caruso and his Guard unit were placed on active duty. In February 2004 he was promoted to Colonel and assumed command of the 50th Brigade, Infantry Division of Lawrenceville, N.J., with which he was deployed to Guantanamo Bay. Caruso can’t talk in detail about his Cuba experience but the mission involved security and detention operations for enemy combatants. His unit also began the process of setting up military commissions but that assignment was put on hold after it raised controversy. He was in Guantanamo until April 2005.

Webb to Iraq
For Webb, his eight years in the Marines based out of Quantico in Virginia instructing soldiers in firearms and handling ammunition logistics were full-time and took place before he had become involved in his second career in insurance. Two years ago, he decided to re-enter the military, signing up with the Oklahoma Guard and entering Officer Candidate School. Thus in addition to the minimum duty, he faces OCS demands on his time for training and planning, as well as courses for a degree from Southern Nazarene University.

Of his training, he says, “[T]hey want you to experience failure. They don’t want you to think this will be perfect every time; they want you to know what failure’s like, what it’s like to do something that actually costs lives.”

Webb has about eight months more of classes — which is calling it close since his Guard unit has been notified that it will be deployed to Iraq sometime between March and June next year.

He says it’s hard for him to explain but he is actually looking forward to going to Iraq. “It’s not that I want to go there and get shot up, blown up and all that. … I want to go over there but I don’t want to go to be Rambo or anything like that. I think of it for me more as a pilgrimage to actually find out more who I actually am. I’ve been doing all this training for these last eight years and I want to find out how I’d react over there, how I will function under pressure,” the soldier explains.

There is another motivation as well. In addition to his Guard unit being deployed, the Marine unit he was with was sent to Iraq in June. “I know my buddies are going over there and I want to make sure I am doing everything I can do to take care of them.”

Effects on agency
Being a civilian soldier can place strains on families and careers. “You’ve got to be a darn good time manager and be able to juggle. You have to be a team player as well … but it works,” Smith says.

It can be especially hard for smaller insurance agencies. “I’m a third of the workforce,” notes Smith, who knows the agency can’t just hire someone for a few days while he’s away. The burden has fallen on the staff, chiefly his brother, the commercial lines manager. “My brother and our CSR picked up the slack,” he acknowledges.

At the same time, Smith insists the benefits of his military experience far outweigh the disadvantages. “Besides the self-confidence, I’ve learned a lot of people skills, dealing with different types of people. … It was good,” he believes.

Caruso credits his agency staff and his family for keeping operations running while he has been preoccupied with military matters. “The folks I have, have been here for 10 years, and did a good job running the agency while I was gone,” he boasts. His wife and son have stepped in to help out as well.

“Anytime that you’re the owner and you’re not here there are going to be opportunities that you’re going to miss,” Caruso says. But he believes lost opportunities have been minimized thanks to his staff.

Had he been a full-time agent without military distractions, how might his agency be different? “If I were doing this 100 percent of the time, without distractions, I would say the agency would probably be a bit larger than it is,” Caruso answers.

Like Smith, Caruso believes that on balance his military experience has more helped than hurt his business. “The military definitely complemented my success here in the agency. I don’t think it detracted,” insists the veteran. “It’s been rewarding for me. I don’t regret a day of it and if I had 40 more years I certainly would do it again.”

For the younger Webb, the full effects of his double duty to the military and an agency career are still unknown. He is confident he will get back his account manager job at C.L. Frates when he returns from Iraq but he worries that he will lose some professional ground while he is away:

“A big sacrifice for me is right now I’m in a pretty good position at my agency as far as my career growing. The hardship for me here, if I am deployed, is that there’s going to be no one managing my book of business. They’ll have to hire someone to replace me. If I were not to deploy, in probably two to three years I could be a bigger producer where I’d have maybe a CSR working for me.

“If I leave now and come back in two or three years, I could end up working for someone else. It really messes with my career in the insurance industry. I know I won’t lose my job; it’s just that I won’t have the opportunities for advancement like I would if I were here working.”

Family effects
More than careers are affected when the military calls. “The toughest part is leaving the family behind,” maintains Caruso. “And those left behind having to deal with everything … you’re not there to share responsibilities; that’s the hardest part.”

Smith agrees. “Families really give up a lot. I think they give up in some respects more than active duty soldiers do.”

For Webb, this challenge is just beginning as he faces being away from his wife and baby girl in Iraq. “I hate the fact that I’ll be missing time with them. It’s like you have the two voices over your shoulder. One’s telling you, ‘this is something that will be good for you’ and the other is saying, ‘remember the dangers of going and your family, not seeing your daughter grow up for several years.’ It’s a really tough struggle.”

One thing about leaving behind his family haunts him the most. “A friend of mine went away when his daughter was really young and came back when she was a year or two and she didn’t know who he was. For about a month she wouldn’t even go near him. I think if I came back and she was scared of me or didn’t want to be near me, that would hurt,” Webb confides.

Just as entering military life isn’t easy, switching back to civilian life after being on duty can be challenging as well. Families and insurance agencies do not run like military operations.

“You have to keep the two separated in your mind. I try to. But I don’t think I do it 100 percent,” admits Caruso. “Fortunately it has gotten easier for me than for younger soldiers but it is difficult to transition from military life to civilian. Everyone deals with it in their own way.”

Smith also admits it’s sometimes hard to turn off military training, recalling the time he caught himself addressing a CSR like she was a soldier. “You get into a mindset and it’s hard to transition out. If you’re in a position of authority like I was in military, you expect people to do what they’re told when you tell them to do it and do it correctly. You expect it to be done and done correctly the first time you tell them. But some people are on a different wavelength and do it on their own time,” Smith says.

Trusting others
Looking ahead, Webb has some concern about being trained in Iraq not to trust people other than his fellow soldiers, then returning home to Oklahoma where he’ll have to build trust as part of building his insurance career.

The Marine-turned-Guardsman admits to also worrying about being physically injured or psychologically impaired in Iraq. “War has changed so much. It used to be the guys you were fighting wore uniforms or you were on the frontline and you knew you were in combat there but could go back to the rear to safety… [N]ow you could be in the rear or driving a vehicle and at anytime you can be blown up. There’s no downtime with that or relief,” he notes.

After he’s back home, Webb believes his military training will accrue to his benefit in insurance because it teaches him how to plan to achieve goals, remain focused on those goals, and act under pressure. “I might lose a $2,000 account but I can deal with that stress after worrying about getting people killed,” he figures.

As Webb contemplates his future, Smith reflects on his retirement. His 25-year career in the Guard ended in October 2003, and he can’t believe how much free time he has on his hands now. He has no regrets. Would Smith rejoin the Guard if he had it all to do over again? His answer comes without any hesitation: “In a heartbeat. I love it and I’m missing it.”

This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2007 issue of Insurance Journal magazine.

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