Nobody's Hero

Reservists and National Guardsmen returning from Iraq are guaranteed to get their civilian jobs back. But is Uncle Sam really looking out for our troops? Not in Colorado. Just ask Jim Vigil

October 2006

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Midmorning in Fallujah, Iraq, and already it was 124 degrees. Factor in the body armor, the water bag on his back, and the loaded M-16 he held at the ready, and Jim Vigil was hauling 75 pounds of gear and felt as if he were tiptoeing through hell. The U.S. convoys of Humvees and tri-axle trucks packed with his fellow Marines rolled through the city, churning the desert into the air. Gritty and fine, the dirt covered everything, turning the air into a haze, making it that much more difficult to spot lurking mujhadeen, foreign fighters, insurgents, Al Qaeda, or whatever “bad guys” may have been out to kill American “infidels” like him on that day last July.

Only five months earlier, 37-year-old Vigil was home in Denver; walking the halls of East High School as a dean of students, he was on the lookout for class clowns, cheaters, and tardy teenagers—kids that reminded Vigil of himself when he was young and thought he knew it all. Now, the Marine reservist was on a combat patrol through one of the most unstable cities in Iraq’s most unstable province, Al Anbar; he was on the lookout for snipers and improvised explosive devices—like the one that had killed three Marines on the same stretch of road just the day before.

Over his head, attack choppers buzzed and fighter jets sliced through the cloudless sky. He could hear the crack of nearby gunfire. Nothing out of the ordinary; still, it wasn’t something Vigil would ever get used to. His heart thumped hard against the picture of his daughter taped to the inside of his armored vest. In the sweat-stained photograph, 14-year-old Jazmin held a slender finger over her lips, reminding him to be quiet while on patrol, reminding him to get home alive.

Taking a pull from his water bag, Vigil tasted the desert in his mouth; it muddied and swished between his teeth. There was no use trying to spit it out. Iraq had already found its way inside of him, even seeping into what used to be his dreams. He swallowed it all down and kept moving toward the objective. Chief Warrant Officer Vigil was assigned to the 5th Civil Affairs Group; the CAG was not a combat unit, rather its mission was nothing short of Nation Building. Comprised mostly of reserve officers who are doctors, engineers, lawyers, businessmen, and educators in their civilian lives, the CAG worked with Iraqis to establish an economy and elected local governments, and to create an overall infrastructure. It made sense that Vigil was tapped for the unit. After all, school administration was his thing. And on that morning his detachment was on its way to check on a school a few clicks outside Fallujah, in the town of Saqlawiyah.

In Marine-speak, Fallujah was “nonpermissive,” meaning there was still a very good chance of a Marine ending up in a body bag. Because the U.S. offensive had left the town in shambles and inflicted massive collateral damage, including the inadvertent killing of “innocents,” tensions between locals and Marines were high. Yet when Vigil and his Marines at last reached the school they received a friendly, if not celebratory, reception. The primary-school-age children, all chattering and giggles, ran to them. For a while the Marines mingled with the kids, handing out notebooks, pens, and pencils, and taking pictures. Afterward, the teachers took Vigil on a tour of the school. At first, their communication was perfunctory: Speaking through an interpreter, the faculty submitted a wish list of needs. In no time, though, the conversation became something more. Vigil and the Iraqi teachers began talking as colleagues, exchanging warm smiles and classroom stories.

More than a year has passed since that afternoon in Saqlawiyah, but it remains a touchstone memory for Vigil, conjuring up wildly disparate emotions. Recalling how those Iraqi teachers in that war-torn school embraced him with respect and gratitude, he cannot help but think that, regardless of the politics of the war and no matter what the latest opinion polls say, he risked his life for a noble cause. However, he also cannot help but compare that warm welcome to the way he was greeted by his own administrators back at East High, and that leaves him wondering if his seven-month tour was really worth it. Welcome back, Vigil’s principal told him, you’re fired.

Almost half of the U.S. force in Iraq is comprised of National Guard members and reservists like Jim Vigil. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, at least 560,000 “part-timers” have dutifully left their civilian jobs and families and risked their lives alongside the full-time troops­—amounting to the largest mobilization of citizen soldiers since World War II. More than 460,000 of these reservists and Guard members have completed their missions and returned home just as anonymously as they left. Many of them are assimilating into their civilian worlds without unexpected hardship; thousands of others, however, like Vigil, are returning home to discover they’re suddenly unemployed. According to a 2005 Defense Department survey, up to 14 percent of reservists returning from active duty have had trouble reclaiming their jobs. Among all of the yellow ribbons and patriotic lip service, they’ve been demoted or even handed a pink slip and told they’ve been downsized, restructured, or whatever-ed out of their livelihood.

In many of these cases their employers are breaking the law. In 1994, Congress passed the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA. Allowing for few exceptions, the law mandates that employers not only rehire their citizen-troop employees upon return from active duty, it also requires that the boss reinstate the employee into the same position or one comparable to it. What’s more, employers must honor the “escalator principle,” meaning the civilian-service member’s pay must reflect whatever raises he would have normally received. While inconvenient for business owners, the rationale behind the law is that when the nation goes to war, everyone, not just the men and women on the front lines, should sacrifice.

Of course, the law means nothing without enforcement. Reservists and Guard members who feel their USERRA rights have been violated can turn to a number of federal agencies—Department of Labor, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and the Office of Special Counsel. However, military brass strongly encourages the rank and file to first turn to a Defense Department agency called Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR.

ESGR’s mission is to ensure that public and private employers support the men and women of the National Guard and Reserve. The 55 full-time civilian and military employees who staff the ESGR headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, spend much of their time managing ESGR branches that are located in every state, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and Europe. It is these local offices, and more specifically their volunteer “ombudsmen,” that handle ESGR’s most important duty: to prevent, resolve, or reduce employer and employee “problems and misunderstandings that result from National Guard or Reserve” service, by providing information and informal mediation.

In deployment briefings, troops are reminded of their USERRA rights and advised that if they have trouble reclaiming their civilian jobs they should contact their local ESGR office. They’re told an ombudsman will promptly evaluate their case and, if it has merit, bring the employee and employer together in mediation. Before a civilian troop calls in, say, the Justice Department, before it launches a time-consuming and taxpayer-funded investigation and perhaps legal proceeding, so goes the thinking behind ESGR, why not first simply try to talk things through and quickly get the civilian troop back to work.

In theory, ESGR ought to be a tremendous resource for our troops. In reality, however, it is a bureaucratic mess, mired in incompetence, undermined by conflict of interest, and accountable to no one. In reality, ESGR has inspired such a lack of confidence in our troops that, according to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Department of Defense itself, an astonishing 72 percent of reservists and Guard members with USERRA-based concerns don’t even bother contacting the organization. Here in Colorado, the ESGR office made available to Vigil and thousands of other civilian troops has earned a reputation for being especially worthless.

Jim Vigil doesn’t look anything like the Devil Dogs you see on the Marine recruiting posters. He’s petite, with short black hair graying at the temples, dark brown eyes, and smooth olive skin. I first saw him, last summer, on a small Marine base in Al Anbar, and thought he was one of the Civil Affairs Group’s Iraqi translators. I made the mistake of saying as much to my Marine escort, who promptly announced, “Hey, Vigil, the reporter thinks you’re one our interpreters.” Vigil smiled and flipped me the bird.