George Sikaffy wasn't wearing his Secaucus police uniform when he walked into town hall on Oct. 8. He wore instead the uniform of sergeant in the United State National Guard, his chest thick with ribbons and his beret tilted slightly to the right side.
Sikaffy had returned to Secaucus on Sept. 25 after three months on the front lines in Afghanistan, three of the most terrifying months of his life. He had come to town hall to personally thank the mayor and council for supporting his efforts. Unlike many towns around the state and country, Secaucus had agreed to make up the difference between his military salary and police salary, even though Sikaffy has already been away a year. Recently, orders out of Washington D.C. said he could spend another year in service.
Even with combat incentive pay for service on the front lines, Sikaffy would see less 10 percent of his police salary from the military if the town did not supplement the pay.
"I wanted to come back and thank the mayor and the council for paying my full salary while I'm in service," he said.
The town council agreed to pick up the difference between military pay and the salary he made as a police officer. Many communities offer some back pay, but often this lasts only 90 days. With many still activated for a possible war in Iraq, military people like Sikaffy could find themselves short of pay. Sikaffi's unit was mobilized last year as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and he is among the thousands of National Guard and reservists that now face up to another year of full service -- the longest stint since the Vietnam war.
In many cases, this is causing a strain on family relationships, especially because military pay does not equal what they made in civilian life. Currently nation wide, 75,000 National Guard and Reserve troops are performing involuntary active duty. Of those, at least 14,000 are from the airforce reserve and Air National Guard -- 6,000 of these are security personnel.
Under existing law, employers are required to reinstate reservists to jobs with equal pay, benefits and seniority once they return from duty. But employers are not bound to make up the pay differential for reservists. Some employers such as large Fortune 500 companies do reimburse the pay gap from a few days to a year or more, according to a survey done by the Reserve Officers Association. Most smaller employers do not. Sikaffy said only Bergen County is doing the same as Secaucus in providing full pay.
Mayor Dennis Elwell, although pressed by the need to maintain a significant level of police protection in the town said the move to pay Sikaffy and the two other officers currently on active duty, is a matter of patriotism.
"After the atrocities of Sept. 11, it is our duty to make certain that our country is defended," Elwell said. "This never comes without some cost or pain. The law requires us to allow our police officers to participate in the National Guard and reserves. We comply with the law and we respect those officers that do. While we are concerned about the cost to the community, we feel it is important that these military people feel secure that the municipal government will stand behind them 100 percent. This is our patriotic duty, just as they felt it was their patriotic duty to join the reserves."
A bomb with Elwell's name on it
At the Oct. 8 council meeting, Sikaffy presented the mayor and council with an American flag that had been aboard a combat aircraft over Afghanistan earlier this year.
Sikaffy said the flag was onboard an A-10 Thunderbolt II flown out of Bagram Airbase on July 14, by a captain from the 75th air combat squadron.
This was part of a military action taken after an American convoy was attacked while traveling between Bagram and Kabul. Five American soldiers were wounded as a result of the ambush. Before the plane took off, Sikaffy also wrote the name of Mayor Dennis Elwell and the town of Secaucus on one of the bombs eventually dropped on an enemy position in the mountains.
Sikaffy served in Afghanistan from June 18 to Sept. 25. He is part an anti-terrorist and security team that is was activated shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In early October 2001, he was among the 100 members of the 108th Security Forces Squadron mobilized in support of both Nobel Eagle and Enduring Freedom initiatives. Their mission was to provide security for government installations throughout the Washington D.C. Area as well as performing other security related missions.
Later, he got assigned to the front lines in Afghanistan. The whole time he was in Afghanistan, he kept thinking of fresh air, green grass, kids playing the parks and pizza. While he was there, residents of Secaucus wrote him frequently
He said there were land mines everywhere. Estimates claimed the county riddled in excess of 5 million landmines, put down during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s.
"A little girl was killed when I first got there," he said.
Sikaffy said troops were constantly on guard against attack from Taliban and Al Qaeda. Taliban forces apparently possessed rockets that could travel 50 miles and other weapons with shorter ranges. American forces were required to clear a 15-mile perimeter around the base, and patrol it regularly.
"We were dealing with them every day," he said, noting that at night he saw a lot of firefights -- gun battles in the dark. He remembered having to patrol the perimeter of his base at night, wearing night vision goggles. Before his arrival, the enemy had put a bounty on captured or killed Americans.
Bagram Airforce Base is located about 26 miles north of Kabul. It was constructed by the former Soviet Union and is the largest military airbase in Afghanistan. American forces and their allies took over and repaired the base when they began operations against the Taliban. The base is at the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Peaks in the area reach as high as 22,000 feet. Bagram is dusty and hot. Until shortly before Sikaffy's arrival, there was no running water and no toilets.
Although conditions were primitive when American troops first arrived, by the time Sikaffy arrived last June, the base was serving hot meals, had showers and a laundry service. Troops also had access to a gym, recreation and phone tents. Sikaffy was among 7,000 American and multinational troops at the base at time. There are numerous villages nearby with growing populations of refugees from other parts of the county. Estalef, a village to the southwest of the base, for instance, had four to seven thousand people when Sikaffy arrived in Afghanistan with more arriving everyday. Sikaffy remembers the people as being cold, even emotionless, especially the enemy. On July 29, he even encountered a member of the Al-Qaeda.
"He was 36 years old, but he looked 80," Sikaffy said. "We had captured him and his family in the mountains. He had 4,000 pounds of explosives."
A military background
Sikaffy is not new to the military. He has served for 12 years in three different branches, including a six-month stint as an infantryman in the Persian Gulf War. He served four years in the Navy as a mechanic, four years in the Army as an infantryman, and four years in the Airforce in security.
"I've been in service since I was 18 years old," he said, but always dreamed of becoming a police officer. While waiting for an opening, he even served four years as a guard in Rahway State Prison.
"My family has lived in Secaucus for more than 30 years," he said. "While my family is of Hispanic descent, my parents always taught me no matter what my heritage is, I'm always an American."
Sikaffy have been particularly moved by the events since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, especially noting the change of perception in the American general public.
"Sept. 11 taught people what real heroes are," he said. "They aren't movie or rock and roll stairs, they are the people helped save other people."
He is unmarried, so his military stint does not put the same kind of pressure on him as it might a married man with kids. In fact, he loves being a police officer and loves serving his country, even though he said Afghanistan scared him. As a member of the Air National Guard, he just received a promotion from E-5 to E-6, a higher grade of sergeant.
"I'm looking to get a commission," he said, meaning that he wants to become an officer. Since he has a degree from New Jersey City University in criminal justice, he meets one basic qualifications.
Sikaffy had nothing but praise for the Secaucus Police Department and the town of Secaucus, for supporting him while he is away serving his country. He said Captain Richard Scalzo, Captain John Buckley and Police Chief Dennis Corcoran has been particularly supportive. He said he looks forward to the time when he can come back and work 8-hour shifts rather than the 18 to 19 hour shifts he currently puts in as a member of the armed forces.
Sikaffy is currently stationed at McQuire Airforce base in New Jersey, waiting further orders. He expects to be involved with the war in Iraq if and when it occurs.