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Iraq War Touches Cable's Ranks

The Iraq war has brought many highs and lows for Cynthia Fletes, who works for Cox Communications Inc. in San Diego. Her brother-in-law was missing in combat at one point, but then turned up alive.

Last week brought more good news: As she watched U.S. troops liberate Baghdad, Fletes felt chills all over.

"I did have to restrain myself from dancing in my cubicle," she said.

Since the war began, Cox San Diego employees such as Fletes and Leslie Talansky, whose husband is a Cobra helicopter pilot, have nervously kept an eye on Cable News Network throughout the work day, looking for news about their loved ones in Iraq. On top of that, six of their co-workers are now on active war duty.

All of that has made for a very trying time for not only Fletes and Talansky, but many of their San Diego co-workers. The city is a big military town, studded with U.S. Marine Corps and Navy stations. Roughly one out of five of the U.S. troops in Iraq was shipped from San Diego.

So along with having their co-workers overseas, many Cox employees at the 537,000-subscriber San Diego system have relatives or friends fighting in the war, or know someone involved in combat.

Although the impact is especially significant for Cox in San Diego, the war has taken a human toll on a number of MSOs. Cox overall has 88 employees on active duty, out of 21,000. Comcast Corp. has an estimated 100 workers on military leave. For Time Warner Cable, the number is 76, with 53 for Charter Communications Inc. and 10 for Insight Communications Co.

In most cases, those numbers are not enough to dramatically affect most cable systems. But employees have been called upon to help fill the slack for their missing colleagues, who in some cases have been told they can expect to be on active duty for a year.

Even with Baghdad in American hands, it appears that U.S. military forces will have to remain to occupy Iraq for the post-war period.

Pitching in

Time Warner Cable in Lincoln, Neb., has two employees on active duty, a broadband installer and a construction technician. The system has coped.

"People have really rallied around and taken on extra duties and filled in where they're needed to," said Anne Shrewsbury, manager of public affairs and community programming for the 112,000-subscriber operation.

Six of Insight's 10 workers on leave are from its 283,000-subscriber system in Louisville, Ky. That operation has hired some extra contractors to pitch in for those technicians, according to Gregg Graff, senior vice president of operations for Insight's southern Midwest region.

At Cox in San Diego, three field-service representatives, two high-speed Internet technical service reps and one customer-care worker are on military leave. But more will follow, according to Fletes, a slamming investigator for Cox's phone service in broadband operations.

"One of my co-workers just told me he's leaving on April 21 for boot camp for Marine Corps training," she said. "He signed up right after the war started. So we have people that have actually signed up to go. He's one of our field techs, and that's just hard, 'cause we know what's happening over there."

Talansky — a marketing manager for Cox Media, the system's ad sales unit — said her husband Bill left for active duty Jan. 16, with less than a week's notice. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he was training pilots, and wasn't scheduled to go overseas.

The Talanskys, sweethearts since they were young teens in Brooklyn, have a 5-year-old son Brandon, and a 2-year-old daughter, Samantha.

"Cox has been so supportive of me since the day my husband left and even more so since the war broke out, knowing it is emotionally straining on me," Talansky said. "I've been told to take as much time as I want off."

But it's better to be at work, according to Talansky.

"I have CNN in my office," she said. "I don't put the TV on in front of my kids. So I honestly feel more in touch when I'm at work. What's the sense of sitting at home and being sad and scared, because this is very scary, especially with what my husband does. Aside from the guys who are right on the ground, this [helicopter piloting] is the next most dangerous thing."

The Talanskys have already lost a friend, who was recently shot down in combat.

And while Talansky said she was "excited" about the fall of Baghdad last week, "there is a lot of work to be done. I am hoping for my husband to return soon, but recognize the reality that there is still tough work ahead."

Supportive staffers

Fletes, whose manager is a former Marine, said Cox employees are pulling each other through.

"There's a support group of people I know here [at the San Diego system] whose husbands are in the military," she said. "So everyday we ask each other how we're doing, ask if anything is going on. It's not an official support group, but at lunch breaks we'll ask each other."

A large number of Nebraska's citizens have been called to active duty, so many Time Warner workers in Lincoln have had either friends or relatives called up, according to Shrewsbury.

The system received many requests from employees for some kind of tribute. So Time Warner produced a 30-second spot that showed not only photos of its two employees deployed to duty, but also pictures of workers' relatives now on military leave.

Those photos were not identified by name, but would say "father" or "cousin," indicating the person's relationship to a Time Warner worker. The spot asked viewers to join Time Warner in a salute to "all our Nebraska troops."
At Cox's Pensacola, Fla., system, field service technician Jonathan Eusebio has been on active military duty since Sept. 11, 2001, according to his wife Sharie. His first tour was extended to a second year, which ends this October.

"He can't wait to come back," she said. "His bosses have been very supportive of him since he got activated."

In fact, supervisor James Dixon has remained in touch with Eusebio's family and even mowed their lawn two weeks ago, according to wife Sharie.

"I said, 'I appreciate it sir,' " she recalled.

Insight's Graff said his employees have also offered to mow the lawns of families with relatives on military leave.

Cox's 270,000-subscriber New Orleans operation has eight employees on active duty, including a manager from its customer-care center and a mid-level manager in its engineering department, according to Steve Sawyer, the system's vice president of public and governmental affairs. One of those managers also served overseas in the Gulf War in 1991.

"He helps deploy cable," Sawyer said.

The New Orleans system held "hurry up and get back" parties for employees that went on active duty. In addition, the system is running a tribute to those away on leave on its internal employee channel, "Pipeline."

That spot features a flag waving in the background, and lists the names and the departments of the eight workers on duty.

The tribute says, "In honor of our family members at Cox New Orleans who were called to active duty. We salute you and Godspeed."