CBS News reported this week that thousands of National Guard troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to find that they have been fired in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The CBS report went on to say that increasing numbers of National Guard and Reserve troops who have returned from war are encountering new battles with their civilian employers at home. Government sources quoted by PBS report that jobs were eliminated, benefits reduced and promotions forgotten for over 4000 returning Guard and Reservists since 2001.
Tragically, the companies abusing our troops may get away with it because there are not enough lawyers to force them to obey the law. Erin Moriaty, the CBS correspondent who covered the story for CBS, learned that one-third of the National Guard troops in Iraq currently say their number one fear is that they will not have a job when they get home and not be able to do anything about it. Fighting abusive corporations – many of them military contractors with political connections – is beyond the financial capability of most returning Guards and Reservists. When they learn their job is gone, their first concern is to scramble to get a new one before they get evicted or have to declare bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), set up within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs to provide returning Guards and Reservists with free legal help through the states, has not been adequately funded and must rely on volunteers. Fred Denson, General Counsel for the Tennessee Military Department , explained to me that, while his office gets 30 new cases a month, he has only two lawyers to work on them and must recruit volunteer trial lawyers to keep from being buried under new cases. He says other states are in the same bind.
But the skills Denson and his counterparts in the other states need are those of trial lawyers – the very skills the Administration seeks to handcuff with its push for so-called “tort reform”. Trial lawyers protect American families from irresponsible corporations. The settlements trial lawyers earn for helping citizens abused by corporations make it possible for them to volunteer their time and their resources to fight for the families of our troops. The lawsuits they file - misnamed “frivolous” by the Right Wing noise machine - are the powerful levers citizens use to force corporations to obey the law and behave responsibly. And now these same powerful levers are needed by the families of National Guard and Reservists to force many of those same companies to treat our returning troops as the law – and patriotic decency – demands.
Trial lawyers stepped up to the plate after 9/11 to help the families of those killed in the Twin Towers. Now they are being asked to step up to the plate again to protect the families of America’s National Guard troops who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is clear that America’s trial lawyers are on the side of America’s families in the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that the Bush Administration is on the side of corporations who are not satisfied with overcharging the taxpayers in Iraq, but now are trying to steal the future from our troops fighting there.
Trial lawyers will help protect families of America’s fighting men and women. The Administration’s so-called “tort reform” aims to protect the companies abusing our troops. If “tort reform” passes, no family will be safe, at home or at war.
© 2004 Commonweal