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By ANN McFEATTERS
Last week we learned that many of our disabled Iraq-war veterans are being shafted by the military and medical bureaucracy. Now we find out that some reservists and members of the National Guard are returning home to find their jobs gone.
Although there is a 1994 law — the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act — requiring reservists to be fairly and quickly re-hired after deployment, it is often not enforced. A military office called Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, whose local branches returning soldiers are to contact if they can’t get their jobs back, has just two press releases on its Web site for 2007.
One said: “The military is grateful to the civilian employers of National Guardsmen and reservists who support their employees when they’re called to duty, said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” in a statement in Anchorage, Alaska, a few days ago.
January’s press release said the Department of Defense will mobilize Guard and reserve members by units, increasing the odds of multiple deployments by individuals. While it said the goal is only one year of involuntary deployment and five years of non-mobilization, because of “today’s global demands” that will not be possible for all units.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Defense has mobilized more than 500,000 reservists and Guard members. Sometimes they make up nearly half of the U.S. ground troops fighting abroad.
An investigation of the military’s employer-support office last year for Denver magazine, by Maximillian Potter, argued that although it should be a “tremendous resource” for returning U.S. troops, it is “a bureaucratic mess, mired in incompetence, undermined by conflict of interest and accountable to no one.”
A new report in February by the Government Accountability Office found that the Pentagon does not even know the scope of the problems reservists face when they try to go back to work. In 2005, one out of seven was thought to return jobless.
Under the 1994 law, there are about 12,400 formal complaints filed each year alleging that employers refused to give returning reservists and Guard members their old jobs. The GAO said Congress hears about 2,400 of those complaints.
The GAO report concluded that the Departments of Defense, Justice and Labor and the Office of Special Counsel have different ways of approaching the law and don’t compare cases, one reason for the chaos and confusion. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is taking heat for the problems that returning soldiers face, oddly, is not involved in employee claims under the 1994 law.
An Air Force nurse with 32 years in the military, seven in active duty, and nearly two-dozen medals for valor and service was terminated from her civilian health-care job of 10 years when she was sent to Iraq for four months last year.
She is not alone. Increasingly, as reservists and Guard members return home after service in Iraq, they are finding their jobs were eliminated or their pay checks were smaller or promised promotions disappeared.
Last November, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management sent its annual report to Congress on veterans and disabled veterans working for the federal government. The press release said, “And by every measure, the Bush administration is living up to its commitment to make career opportunities available to soldiers, sailors and airmen.” The report said the total number of veterans employed in 2005 out of a federal government work force of 1.8 million was 456,254. But the number of veterans newly hired in 2005 was only 5,000 more than the number hired in 2004.
That was also when 36 members of the Florida National Guard got letters, while serving in combat in Iraq, informing them that their jobs in a federal drug-interdiction program were abolished.
The Denver magazine report told of a 53-year-old Marine, in the service for 29 years, who deployed for nine months in Kuwait and Iraq in 2002 and 2003.
When he got home, he was fired from his $88,000-a-year job in a firm where he’d worked for 19 years. He was allegedly told by the Department of Labor, where his commanding officer referred him, that he didn’t have a legal case unless he heard somebody say he was fired because of his military service.
The officer, a lawyer, was so outraged, that he fought for the Marine, who won $324,082 in U.S. District Court in Colorado. As of late last year, reporter Potter said the Marine was still looking for a job with health insurance for his family.
The National Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve says veterans with job problems should call one of its ombudsmen from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday at 1-800-336-4590. Sometimes you can get a real person.
The betting is that there will be thousands of cases as returning reservists and Guard members try to reclaim their old jobs. The betting is that many will be out of luck.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)
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