By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2006 – The Department of Justice has launched a Web site to protect servicemembers' rights, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez said yesterday. Gonzales, speaking to the Disabled American Veterans annual convention in Chicago, said the Justice Department has made it a priority to enforce civil rights laws for American servicemembers. "The law recognizes that although we can never thank you enough for your service, we can take away some of the worries that soldiers might face when they are deployed," he said in prepared remarks.
The government promises that servicemembers' jobs will still be theirs when they come home and that they cannot be discriminated against by their employers because of their military service. The U.S. vows that servicemembers will be able to vote and that their vote will be counted. And it promises that servicemembers "will have procedural protections in civil actions, like lawsuits or property re-possessions, when serving overseas."
The Justice Department Web site, www.servicemembers.gov, outlines the rights servicemembers have under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. "These basic civil rights are enforced by the Department of Justice, and I can assure you that the department's staff and prosecutors are deeply committed to these enforcement efforts," Gonzales said. "We feel that it is an honor to serve those in uniform in this way. It is our way of saying thank you for your service."
The attorney general said these are not just "pie in the sky" rights, but issues that directly affect people.
In one case, Justice Department officials filed its first complaint alleging that American Airlines violated rights of employees who also serve as military pilots. The case was brought on behalf of three military pilots employed by American Airlines. It states that the airline reduced the employment benefits of pilots who had taken military leave, while not reducing the same benefits for pilots who had taken similar, non-military leave, Gonzales said. "In another vivid example of the people for whom we enforce these laws, the department recently won a consent decree from an employer who terminated employment of a serviceman named Richard White the very same day that Richard told his boss he was being called to active duty," the attorney general said. "The consent decree requires the employer to pay back wages to Mr. White.
"What leads an employer to treat a soldier like an inconvenience is something for a higher power to judge. But here on earth, we have USERRA, and we'll use it for Richard White and for soldiers like him, as often as is necessary." Voting is another servicemember right the Justice Department guards. "Earlier this year, ... (the department) addressed long-standing structural issues affecting uniformed military personnel posted both in this country and overseas who wished to vote in North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama," Gonzales said.
These states had run-off elections too close to the primary elections to allow these voters to receive and return ballots. With cooperation from state election officials, the department was able to redress each of these violations. "As the 2006 general election approaches, we will continue vigilant protection of the voting rights of servicemembers, their families and other overseas citizens," he said.
Gonzales also addressed the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. "Thanks to this law, men and women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have procedural protections in place that will allow them to be less distracted by litigation back home -- by someone trying to repossess a leased car, evict their spouse and children, sell their house at an auction or run up penalties on credit cards with 21 percent interest rates," he said. "It's hard to respond to a civil lawsuit while you're focused on improvised explosive devices, and the law protects servicemembers for that reason."
Enforcement of this law is a readiness and morale issue, he said. "Men and women in uniform, like all Americans, have to honor their obligations," he said. "However, Congress long ago decided, wisely I think, to provide protections to them against lawsuits while deployed overseas on active duty." Gonzales urged any servicemember with questions to go to the Justice Department Web site. Military lawyers can help servicemembers and their families navigate through the laws.