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Returning troops lose benefits

WASHINGTON -- Increasing numbers of National Guard and Reserve troops who have returned from war in Iraq and Afghanistan are encountering new battles with their civilian employers at home. Jobs have been eliminated, benefits reduced, and promotions forgotten.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Labor Department reports receiving greater numbers of complaints under a 1994 law designed to give Guard and Reserve troops their old jobs back or provide them with equivalent positions. Benefits and raises must be protected, as if the serviceman or servicewoman had never left.

But some soldiers find that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act can't protect them.

 Larry Gill couldn't return as a police officer in Thomasville, Ala., because a grenade injured a foot, making it impossible for him to chase criminals.

 Jerry Chambers of Oberlin, Kan., found budget cuts had eliminated his job as a consultant to prevent substance abuse.

 Ron Vander Wal, of Pollock, S.D., was first told that his job as a customer representative was eliminated. After filing a civil lawsuit seeking damages, he was hired.

The Labor Department said the number of complaints would have been higher if the government had not made an aggressive effort to explain the law to employers.

Elaine L. Chao , the secretary of labor, said the department is drafting rules to spell out the law's protections for service personnel. "We've got to do everything we can to protect their reemployment rights," she said.

The department was receiving about 900 formal complaints a year before Sept. 11, 2001. The statistical picture after that, based on fiscal years ending Sept. 30:

 1,218 cases opened in 2002.

 1,327 cases in 2003.

 1,200 cases from Oct. 1, 2003, through July 31. If projected over 12 months, the figure would be 1,440, the department said.

The department upheld or settled soldiers' complaints in one-third of last year's cases, while another third were found to have no merit. The remaining cases are inactive or closed, often because the government lost contact with the soldier or the soldier returned to active duty.

When Guard and Reserve troops returned from the first Gulf War, there was one complaint for every 54 soldiers leaving active duty. Currently, with the government's aggressive drive to inform employers of the law, the figure has improved to one in 69. The complaints represent a small percentage of the quarter-million Guard and Reserve troops who have left active duty since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Not all returning troops are bitter about their job loss. Chambers, the substance abuse consultant, said budget cuts left his former nonprofit employer no choice but to eliminate his job.

"I don't fault them for that, and I don't hold grudges," Chambers said. He was among the lucky ones, finding employment with his Reserve unit, the 1013th Quartermaster Co., based in North Platte and McCook, Neb.

For others, finding their jobs gone was a hardship, emotionally and economically. Gill, the former Alabama police officer with an injured leg, had to give up a career that began in 1992 and followed the path his father and brother had taken.

While some service members fault former employers for firing them as they served their country, most complaints involved alleged denial of benefits, promotions, and raises, said officials from the Labor Department and a Pentagon organization, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

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