Remembrance and Action on Veterans Day
This week, the United States launched a major military offensive in Fallujah to gain this important strategic stronghold in the war in Iraq. With time and good fortune, the men and women who are serving in this effort will return home, joining the growing cadre of service members whose bravery and sacrifices we honor—also this week—on Veterans Day.
This Veterans Day, the nation acknowledges the debt we owe to the men and women of our military, and celebrates their service and unflagging commitment to our country. Sadly, however, while they are the front-line defenders of our country in the global war on terror and frequently serve as the face of democracy in faraway lands, all too often they find that their legal rights have been diminished as a result of their military service.
Foremost among their legal worries are employment concerns. A recent informal survey done by the Reserve Officers Association of readers of its newsletter found that 53 percent of respondents were “very concerned” about their or a member of their family’s employment, including eligibility for promotion or reemployment by their current employer. In the same informal survey, 51 percent said they were not confident that their job is secure while they are fulfilling their service duties away from home. These difficulties oftentimes are omnipresent in the thoughts of active-duty soldiers, competing for their attention while they are fulfilling crucial and potentially deadly service-related responsibilities.
Today, amid the tolling of bells and other ceremonies in communities throughout the country, we must stop to ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to repay their commitment. It is in this spirit that the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel appointed a Working Group whose purpose was to frankly assess the legal safeguards provided to the thousands of reservists, National Guard and other service members who make up our nation’s military, and to recommend new or expanded legal protections where they are needed.
The Report of the Working Group identifies a number of critical areas where reform is needed, including family support, child custody, housing, tax laws, tuition benefits, and voting and employment rights. The Working Group found that service members too often encounter undue inequities and challenges to their and their families’ well-being, and that many of the problems stem from the frequent relocation that military service demands, as well as from the prolonged periods of absence that duty in the reserves and guard requires. These issues can become especially acute when they are related to employment and job security.
Although the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USSERA) was enacted in 1994, after the large-scale mobilizations brought about by the Gulf War, and has been effective in helping to protect the jobs of service members, the Report found that many reservists are still at potential disadvantage for promotion or reemployment opportunities. This is especially the case for those in civil service, who miss out on civil service testing necessary for promotion, ultimately affecting their chances to improve the financial security of their families for several years; and for those whose earnings are significantly augmented by performance bonuses but who are effectively penalized by their absences while on active duty. Still others, despite legal safeguards, return from the war front to find that they no longer have a job at home.
The shape and face of our country’s military have undergone tremendous change in the past several years, as have the challenges and threats that those in the military must meet. It is incumbent on the legal and business communities, government and lawmakers, to work together to improve the legal safeguards for those who serve in the military. Our service members protect the freedom and security we, as Americans, hold dear. Our nation’s laws should do no less in protecting their and their families’ rights and peace of mind.