The challenges of five years of military duty in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were made easier for veteran firefighter Doug Simms, thanks to his hometown of Shawnee.
Shawnee supported Simms and his family while the sergeant first class was away serving in the Army Reserves. And Shawnee provided a reintegration program to assist him in civilian life when he returned home.
“Shawnee has been wonderful to me and my family,” said Simms, a 22-year firefighter who served 24 years in the Army Reserves.
“To know your family is being taken care of at home, makes you feel more comfortable while you’re serving overseas. And I was taken back with open arms when I returned home.”
For the past several years, Simms has nominated Shawnee for the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the highest honor given to employers for exceptional support of Guard and Reserve employees. It is awarded by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an office of the Department of Defense.
Simms’ efforts were rewarded this year when Shawnee and 14 other recipients were selected to receive the Freedom Award on Aug. 21 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Shawnee was selected from nearly 3,000 nominations.
Simms said he learned about the award at briefings after deployment as well as through the VFW. “It’s a great way for employees to help their employers gain recognition,” Simms said. “Shawnee deserves the recognition.”
Shawnee is only the second Kansas employer to receive the award, said Walt Frederick, Kansas state chairman of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. Sprint earned the honor in 2004.
“It’s a huge honor,” Frederick said. “The secretary of defense will personally present the award at a Pentagon ceremony and the 15 recipients are scheduled to meet the president the day before.”
Frederick said what set Shawnee apart from the nearly 3,000 award nominations was going above and beyond federal requirements in its support of employees on military leave.
For example, Shawnee pays the entire premium for benefits such as medical, dental and vision during military leave. “That was a wonderful benefit for my family, particularly during difficult economic times,” Simms said.
Shawnee also offers a service member reintegration program to ease employees back into the workplace after deployment; assists family members with chores during deployment; sends care packages to service members; and recognizes service members publicly during city council meetings when they return home.
“They flew a Blue Star flag at all of the fire stations while I was away,” Simms said of the flag that honors deployed family members. “And when I returned I was reinstated in my previous position and provided training I needed to get back up to speed.”
Simms said he received care packages from Shawnee employees while he was away and firefighters helped take care of his home and lawn. “It was such a relief to know my wife was receiving assistance while I was gone,” he said.
Joshua Bayless, a Shawnee police officer, said he also received support from Shawnee while serving as a platoon sergeant and military police officer in the Army reserves for 11 months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I had a liaison with the city whom I talked to on a monthly basis, which helped keep me informed,” he said. “Reintegration has been very, very easy. Shawnee understands how to support its employees in the service.”
Shawnee has received other awards from Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, including the Above and Beyond Award in 2014 and the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Patriot Award in 2005.
Additionally, Shawnee has participated in Flags for Freedom since 2007. The city partners with VFW Local Post 10552 in lining Johnson Drive with American flags the week leading up to Independence Day. The flags are designed to honor veterans, active military and encourage patriotism throughout the community.
“To receive such unique recognition says a lot about our city and our community,” said Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler. “We support our friends and neighbors. We want to set the standard for how to support those who serve in the military.”
Other Freedom Award recipients this year include Walt Disney Co., Cigna and CVS Health.