Oh, the ironing
April 2, 2009
Reserve soldier sues UWash, alleges discrimination for having served in Iraq
An Army reservist employed at the University of Washington has filed suit against the institution, asserting in court papers that he has been harassed and discriminated against for serving in Iraq.
Employed by UW as an electrician since 1992, Army Reserve Lt. Col. James Lukehart had risen in the ranks of the university's facilities department and was working as a maintenance manager when he was ordered to deploy to Iraq in June 2006.
Before he went overseas, a group of his coworkers had told him he would be "engaging in immoral, if not illegal, action" if he went to Iraq as ordered, Lukehart asserts in court documents. Still, the reservist went to war less than three weeks after receiving notice that he'd be deployed.
According to military news reports, Lukehart served as an executive officer in an engineering brigade stationed at Ballad Air Base, 70 miles north of Baghdad. Among Lukehart's duties while deployed, according to an August 2007 edition of the Camp Anaconda Times, was the construction of a water-treatment plant in rural Iraq.
Hoping to return to work in September 2007, Lukehart found that his manager had launched an investigation into allegations of misconduct made against him while serving overseas, according to court papers.
Through his attorney, Sidney Strong, Lukehart alleges that the university gave him no notice that he was under investigation. Confronted by Lukehart, the university even declined to say what the allegations had been made.
The university "refused to provide him with any statement of the charges made against him, instead insisting that (Lukehart) had no need to know either the allegations made against him or the source of those allegations," Strong said in court documents filed earlier this month in King County Superior Court.
Strong did not return calls requesting comment.
Lukehart claims that, facing the loss of his job, he agreed to university demands that he be demoted and accept a pay cut. In the year-and-a-half since, he contends, the coworkers who'd previously complained about his military service have subjected him to "continuing harassment and intimidation."
Reached for comment, UW spokesman Norm Arkans declined to comment in detail on the case due to the status of the litigation.
"Mr. Lukehart's change in status had nothing to do with his service in Iraq, and we will show this in court," Arkans said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 22,000 reservists have filed suits complaints with the Department of Labor claiming they lost seniority or pay because of their service, said Tom Tarantino, a retired Army captain with the veterans advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. About 11,000 have filed claims asserting they were denied reemployment after coming home.
Tarantino said IAVA is currently supporting legislation that would strengthen the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, the law under which Lukehart has filed suit. As the law currently stands, Tarantino said, reservists must either file a civil suit as Lukehart has done or go through non-binding arbitration; those who opt for arbitration often find any ruling nearly impossible to enforce.
All told, Tarantino said, about 10 percent of reservists released from active duty have problems returning to work. IAVA and other veterans organizations are urging Congress to impose stronger sanctions against employers that violate the law, including prohibitions from obtaining government contracts and criminal charges.
"We believe (violators) should face civil and criminal prosecution," Tarantino said. "This isn't something that employers don't know about. If they violated USERRA, it's a willful violation."
Asked whether he'd heard of discrimination or harassment from many service members returned from the wars, Tarantino said stories like Lukehart's have been thankfully few.
"I hadn't heard many reports of many people being openly hostile to veterans because of their service," the Iraq veteran said. "We're not seeing that, which is actually kind of amazing given how the Vietnam generation was treated."
The university has yet to file a response to Lukehart's suit, which requests unspecified compensation. Preliminary hearings have not yet been scheduled.