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
It was last August, one month after Vigil’s stint in Fallujah, and we were near Ar Ramadi, at the CAG’s headquarters. I was a journalist embed traveling with another detachment of Civil Affairs, and my Marine escort, knowing that Vigil and I both lived in Denver, introduced us. The HQ was nothing more than a few aluminum-sided trailers surrounded by sandbags, under camouflage netting. Inside, about a half-dozen officers sat at laptops tracking CAG operations. Because there wasn’t much privacy in the HQ, Vigil and I went outside under the desert sun to talk. Like Fallujah, Ramadi was nonpermissive, and that day had been especially nonpermissive. Before lunch two mortars hit the base. Even better, a fresh intel report warned of an imminent gas attack. “Ahh, it’s nothing to worry about,” Vigil said nonchalantly as we sat at a small table next to the HQ. “If the gas comes it’s probably not going to be lethal, more likely just tear gas, and it probably won’t happen. Those reports come in all the time.”
Vigil told me he didn’t enlist in the Marines to be anybody’s hero. It wasn’t about defending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It wasn’t even about looking like a stud in the dress blues. Truth was, when he enlisted in 1988 he was a 19-year-old “screw-up” who’d flunked out of Arapahoe Community College, gotten himself cut off from his parents’ financial support, didn’t see much of a future, and was just desperate enough to realize he needed direction. His father had served in Vietnam with the Marines, and Vigil decided if the Corps was good enough for his old man it was plenty good enough for him.
Vigil discovered he liked the Marine life and planned on making a career of the Corps, but by the time his three years of active duty were up he’d married his high school sweetheart and had his only child, Jazmin. He wanted to be home more. He cut back to the Reserves, tapped the GI College Bill, and enrolled in Metropolitan State College. While he worked part-time, pursued his degree full-time, and continued with the Reserves, it became evident to Vigil and his wife that they had irrevocably drifted apart. In the midst of the divorce Vigil graduated from Metro in 1998 with a B.A. in history and figured he had the stuff of a respectable teacher. He knew what it was like to be a teenager who thought he was too cool for school, and he figured he had the life experience to turn one or two of those kids around.
He was hired on to East beginning in the fall of 2002 as one of three deans of students. You name the teenage problem and he dealt with it. The teen pregnancies, the kids with STDs, the drug addicts, the abused, the depressed—and the ones, who like Vigil as a kid, took nothing seriously. Vigil loved the job and it showed. He earned above-average performance reviews, and in May 2004 received a handwritten note of gratitude from then DPS Superintendent Jerome F. Wartgow: “Thanks for your good work on behalf of…East High School! It is appreciated.” C.J. Jackson, one of East’s drug and alcohol counselors, nicknamed Vigil “Cricket,” as in Jiminy Cricket, because, as she put it, like Pinocchio’s diminutive guardian, “Jimmy is so tiny, always laughing, and there for the kids.”
“I miss East,” Vigil told me outside the HQ as he fiddled with the helmet in his lap. “I miss the kids.” Before he deployed, some students made him a scrapbook, with pictures and notes. “With all that these kids have going on,” he said, “with how distracted by their own lives they can be, it meant a lot to me that they would take the time and think enough of me to do that.”
Only a few yards away from where we were talking a detachment of Marines prepared to leave base on combat patrol. Most of them didn’t look old enough to legally drink a beer. Sweat dripping from their uncertain expressions, they checked one another’s gear and unlocked their loaded weapons. I asked Vigil if he ever considered that many of the Marines in his command weren’t much older than his students.
“All the time,” he said. “I’m not used to thinking of myself as the old man, but here I definitely am. I was in a Humvee on patrol and saw the driver was nervous. It was his first ride—I was in the passenger seat, which is usually the death seat if you hit a roadside IED. I told him, ‘Take it easy, Devil Pup, I’ve been on a hundred of these patrols. Just keep your eyes on the road and we’ll be fine.’ I was lying to him. I’d only been on three patrols like that”—Vigil smiled as he added—“but it’s what the kid needed to hear from the old man.”
Vigil returned to Denver from Iraq on Dec. 14, 2005. At Denver International Airport he rented a car and drove directly to the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, to surprise Jazmin. A faculty member welcomed him at the front desk, and a student went to get Jaz from class. Vigil had been in Iraq for seven months, but counting his training he’d been away from home for almost a year. He’d missed Jaz’s first day of high school, her first date, her 14th birthday, her braces coming off, and all of those moments in between. When he saw his daughter enter the hallway he was stunned by how she’d grown; just as he was thinking she’s not my little girl any more, she ran down the hall and leapt into his arms. Reuniting with Jaz was the high point of Vigil’s homecoming; the next day was his lowest.
The following morning Vigil reported to East anxious to return to work. “I’m really glad you stopped by,” he remembers Principal Kathy Callum telling him, “because we need to talk.” They stepped into her office. Vigil thought maybe she’d ask him about his tour, maybe ask him what day might be good for a little welcome-home party. Instead, what Vigil heard her say in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, was, “We don’t have a job for you here.” Vigil felt as if he’d left his body and was watching a film reel of someone else’s life. This can’t be happening. He thought back to the last faculty meeting he attended before deploying: Callum, in front of several staffers, assured Vigil that his job would be waiting for him. Now, standing in her office, he was too enraged to remind her; all he said was that he’d go talk to the Denver Public Schools human resources department.
An hour later he walked into DPS headquarters at 900 Grant Street. Finding a receptionist, he explained why he’d come. He got, “No one’s available right now.” From his cell phone, Vigil called the HR representative for East, Renee Barela, and briefed her. She was busy, she said, and would call him first thing tomorrow. At 1:30 the next afternoon Vigil called her.
Barela asked if he had any written evidence of Callum’s promise. He did not. Vigil figured he could trust the principal’s word. Sounding as if she’d read up on USERRA, Barela then told Vigil what he already knew: that the district did not have to reinstate him in his job as a dean, just a comparable position.
Barela now says she does not remember the rest of her conversation with Vigil, but, according to him, he asked her how his pay would resume and was told, “Don’t worry about that now. Come back after Christmas.” Audibly frustrated and emotional, Vigil said he didn’t want to wait until after the holiday. After all, he said, he’d reported back to his job, or at least what he thought was his job, the day before. On top of his normal bills, Vigil would have Christmas expenses, gifts for his parents and Jazmin. Barela instructed Vigil to come to DPS headquarters the next day and someone would figure out how to get him back on the payroll. As if she were talking to a petulant child, she added, “There’s no reason to get angry.”
Vigil’s patience had been exhausted. “I’m sorry,” he snapped, “I’ve just gotten back from Iraq; you can’t possibly fathom what I’ve been through. I come back and the week before Christmas I find out I don’t have a job. At what point am I allowed to get angry?”