When Guard, Reserves Troops Are Denied Old Jobs

More than 600,000 troops from the National Guard and Reserves have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. Federal law states that they're entitled to get their civilian jobs back. Some companies have ignored the law and wound up in the Justice Department's crosshairs.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. Liane Hansen is away. I'm Ari Shapiro.

It's Memorial Day weekend, which means across the country, there are tributes to the men and women who've served in the military. In a moment we'll hear from a veteran of Iraq and Vietnam who told the leaders of his New Hampshire town: You can never again thank me for my service.

But first, here in Washington, the forecast for Memorial Day is always the same - Rolling Thunder.

(Soundbite of motorcycles)

SHAPIRO: Each year, tens of thousands of bikers come to the capital. They ride to support American troops. Artie Muller is the group's spokesman.

Mr. ARTIE MULLER (Spokesman, Rolling Thunder): They're coming from all over the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. We have them coming from Australia, Austria, the Netherlands, Guam, Canada. They're coming from around the world.

SHAPIRO: Their route today starts at the Pentagon and ends at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.

Since 9/11, more than 600,000 troops from the National Guard and Reserves have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those people usually leave civilian jobs behind. When they get back to the States, the law says they have a right to get their jobs back. But employers don't always follow that law and in some cases, that's when the Justice Department steps in.

One recent lawsuit took place in the tiny town of Stewartstown, New Hampshire. The man at the center of the case was the local police chief, Brendon McKeage. He wouldn't talk with us but his friend Rick Sampson would. Sampson's lived in Stewartstown for about 25 years.

Mr. RICK SAMPSON (Friend of Brendon McKeage): From where we live, we can look into Vermont and Canada.

SHAPIRO: And I understand you're an Iraq vet, is that right?

Mr. SAMPSON: Yes. Vietnam and Iraq. I was the oldest fellow in the unit that went to Iraq.

SHAPIRO: McKeage was younger; he's 42. Sampson was recuperating from an injury at Fort Dix in New Jersey when he learned what happened to his buddy.

Mr. SAMPSON: My wife was sending me the paper, and I read in the paper that he had gotten a letter terminating him.

SHAPIRO: While McKeage was in Iraq, Stewartstown decided to make the job of police chief a full-time position. McKeage was the part-time police chief; he also worked at a local corrections facility. The town sent McKeage a letter in Iraq saying if he wanted the full-time police chief job, he'd have to apply for it. That's actually illegal, and it made Rick Sampson furious.

Mr. SAMPSON: After being over there with him for eight months, knowing what we were going through and knowing what we were having to deal with, the last thing on anybody's mind is going to be a part-time job.

SHAPIRO: When you say what you were going through and what you were having to deal with, you mean actually being shot at, having your lives threatened...

Mr. SAMPSON: Oh sure, every day.

SHAPIRO: ...every single day.

Mr. SAMPSON: Every day. When you what we call leave the wire - that's to go outside the base - you know, as soon as you're outside that base you have one thing in mind and one thing only: that's to complete the mission you've been given and get back alive.

SHAPIRO: At the next town meeting, Sampson stood up in front of the three selectmen who'd taken away McKeage's job. He delivered an impromptu speech, no preparation, no notes.

Mr. SAMPSON: And I just said, you know, you people have said that you appreciate our service; you people have said you thank us for our service. And I said, I'm standing here before you tonight to tell you that I do not ever want to hear from any one of the three of you again, I thank you for my service. Because what you did to him, in my opinion, is about as low as you can get. And I said, you cannot thank anybody for their service or respect them for their service and do something like that.

Mr. DAVID HARRIS (Resident, Stewartstown): There was just silence for a moment and then the people of the town just clapped their hands and stood up, you know, and gave him a very strong ovation.

SHAPIRO: This is David Harris. He was also in the crowd that night.

Mr. HARRIS: And so I stood up, and I was recognized. And I moved that the people of the town go on record to censure the selectmen for their outrageous treatment of Brendon McKeage by eliminating his position, which is illegal.

SHAPIRO: The citizens in the meeting took a vote, and the motion passed unanimously.

Mr. HARRIS: The selectmen themselves were just too stunned by this whole thing to even vote.

SHAPIRO: But the censure didn't have any real impact on McKeage's job situation. That's when the Justice Department stepped in. The DOJ has prosecuted lots of cases like this one, and not just against small towns. Grace Chung Becker is the acting head of the department's civil rights division.

Ms. GRACE CHUNG BECKER (Acting Head, Department of Homeland Security, Civil Rights Division): We have seen, for example, corporations, we have seen a bakery, we have seen a small local town. So, it can be public employers, it can be private employers large and small.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department recently sued Wal-Mart in one of these cases. The company agreed to give a Florida airman $12,000 in back pay. And last month, the Justice Department settled the first ever class-action lawsuit in one of these cases.

The defendant was American Airlines. Pilots who went on short-term military leave were not getting the same kinds of benefits as pilots taking other kinds of leave. Most of the pilots were away for two weeks or less, so, Becker says, there probably wasn't enough money at stake for each pilot to hire a lawyer.

Ms. BECKER: But we were able through a class-action lawsuit to get over half a million dollars worth of relief for approximately 350 service members.

SHAPIRO: The law protecting veterans in these kinds of cases is called USERA. It stands for the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act. The latest version passed in 1994. It treats every employer equally, regardless of size. And Jack Morton at the Chamber of Commerce believes that's a problem. He's manager of National Security and Emergency Preparedness for the chamber.

Mr. JACK MORTON (Manager, National Security and Emergency Preparedness, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): Often, small businesses don't have the planning structure or the finances to sustain a long absence of one of their key employees. We're not talking a strategic reserve where folks are called up, you know, on the weekends or maybe for a period up to 90 days. We're talking about now you have long-term deployments for 12 to 18 months.

SHAPIRO: War's put everyone in a difficult spot. For companies, sending an employee off to fight means hiring a temporary replacement, investing in training, then firing that person when the service member returns home after a year or more. Or the alternative is functioning with a smaller staff while your people are overseas.

Mr. SAM WRIGHT (Attorney, Help Write Current USERA): Congress understood very well that it's a burden and decided that that burden is necessary to defend our country.

SHAPIRO: Sam Wright is an attorney who helped write the latest version of this law. He says the whole point was to take concerns about civilian jobs off the minds of people on active duty.

Ms. WRIGHT: If I'm in the foxhole next to Joe Smith, I shouldn't have to worry that he's not paying full attention to his sector of the perimeter 'cause he cannot put out of his mind his concern about his civilian job back home.

SHAPIRO: When Brendon McKeage received the letter in Iraq telling him he was no longer the police chief in Stewartstown, New Hampshire, he had no recourse until he got back to the States.

Peter Callahan is an attorney who represented Stewartstown in the Justice Department's lawsuit. He says it was never the town's intention to make life difficult for McKeage.

Mr. PETER CALLAHAN (Attorney, Represented Stewartstown): The town through the board was working very hard to try to reach an accommodation with Mr. McKeage to try to resolve this.

SHAPIRO: Soon after the Justice Department stepped in, the town agreed to settle the lawsuit. They paid McKeage $25,000 in back wages. Today McKeage is a police officer in a different New Hampshire town, where he sits on the board of selectmen.

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