Sunday, August 02, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: WELCOME HOME, THERE'S THE DOOR

After a year's tour of duty in Afghanistan, a member of the National Guard recently returned home to the United States.

It wasn't his first tour overseas, and he expected that, as in the past, he would be able to return to the civilian job he had left.

But, according to a regular reader of this column in whom he confided, he discovered that his regular job had been filled in his absence and that his employer had no other job for him.

"I was surprised to learn this," my reader writes, "because I thought that, by law, his employer had to offer him the same job or a similar one when he got back."

What makes this an ethical issue, rather than a legal dispute? Well, the guardsman's civilian employer was ... the National Guard itself.

Perplexed by his situation, the guardsman went to speak with the judge-advocate group designated by the National Guard to handle re-entry issues. He was told that his understanding of the law was correct: If they meet the eligibility requirements of the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, members of the National Guard returning from active duty are entitled to re-employment in the civilian job they had before leaving to serve.

"They told him that he indeed did have a case," my reader writes. "But, since his old civilian job was also with the National Guard, they advised him not to pursue it, because it might hamper his long-term career with the Guard!"

She is "simply incensed," my reader adds, "that someone who has served and continues to serve honorably is treated so horribly."

Her ethical question is not whether the National Guard is wrong for not providing him with the opportunity to return to the job he had left.

"That's pretty obvious," she writes.

Her question is rather what, if anything, she should do about it.

"On the one hand," she writes, "I can sympathize with his plight and mind my business. I do not want to jeopardize his career. On the other hand I feel pretty strongly that what has been done to him is not only wrong but also against the law.

"What are your thoughts?"

It will be no surprise that, as almost anybody would, I agree with my reader that it's unconscionable that the National Guard - or any employer, for that matter - would not honor its legal obligation to hold a returning serviceman's job while he served his tour of duty for his country.

It makes matter even worse that those who are designated to protect his rights appear to be advising him not to exercise those rights in order not to make waves.

That said, my reader's proper course of action is to do nothing.

The guardsman has made clear to my reader that, because he would like to continue to serve in the National Guard, he has "made peace" with the issue and plans to look for another job elsewhere to support his young family.

He told his story to my reader in confidence and asked her to keep it to herself, so she has an obligation to honor that request.

Yes, it stinks that he returned home to find that the job he had every reason to believe would be waiting for him had vanished, especially since it was the National Guard itself that failed to respect his service. But it is up to him to decide if he wants to pursue what is rightly his or to let the matter ride.

Like my reader, I think that the National Guard has failed to live up to its standards and that the judge advocate has acted shamefully, but it isn't up to either of us to decide what should be done, because we aren't the injured party.

If this young man came to me and asked me for advice, I would tell him that I believe he should try to get his job back, not only for himself and his family but also for the sake of other guardsmen who might face the same situation in the future.

He isn't the one who came to me, though. That was my reader, who is not directly involved in the situation. The right thing for her to do is to stand aside and let the guardsman decide his future for himself.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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