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RESERVES SOLDIER RETURNS FROM IRAQ TO FIND JOB GONE

by Rene P. Ciria-Cruz

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(PNS) -- Lieutenant Colonel Debra Muhl, an Air Force nurse, saved many soldiers' lives in combat zones in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. She has received more than 20 medals for valor and distinguished service.

She never expected what she got from her civilian employer when she told them she was being deployed to Iraq -- a dismissal notice.

Muhl filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, accusing health giant Sutter Health of violating the law that Congress passed specifically to protect the civilian jobs of Reserves and National Guard members when they are called to deployment or training.

"If it happened to someone with my rank and experience, it could happen to newer soldiers of lower rank," Muhl warns.

"Sutter Health ignored its obligations under those laws and fired Lt. Col. Muhl after she served for four months at Balad Air Base in Iraq, " said Muhl's attorney David A. Lowe of the San Francisco-based law firm Rudy, Exelrod & Zieff.


Muhl was the $175,000-a-year administrative director of Sutter Health's Joint Cardiac Program, when she learned she was being sent to Iraq for four months, starting on Jan. 16 last year.

"I never thought that they would fire me from my position." Muhl said. "I was devastated. I felt betrayed." The 56-year-old San Francisco resident with two grown daughters had been with Sutter Health for 10 years. She has been in the military for 32 years, with seven years of active duty.

Karen Garner, Sutter Health communication director, says Muhl's termination was a result of cost-cutting decisions made well before her military leave, an explanation Muhl disputes. Garner says Sutter supported Muhl's three military leaves of absence and made "two exceptions" to its military leave policy.

"We granted her military leave despite the fact of her termination and allowed her to exceed total allowable supplemental pay period." Sutter gave her six months supplemental pay and retirement benefits, Garner says. "Sutter has a strong and generous military leave policy above and beyond what the law requires," she adds.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 or USERRA was passed to protect soldiers' jobs after the 1991 Gulf War. It requires employers to return veterans to their old jobs or give them an equivalent position.

More than half of the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces today are members of the National Guard and Reserves, amounting to the largest call-up of reserves since the Korean War.

Lowe says that at a time when additional troops are being deployed to Iraq and more reserve units are having their deployment extended or are being called up for multiple tours of duty, "their need for job protection when they return home is crucial."

Muhl's lawsuit may be the first test of the USERRA law and there could be more cases soon, says Lowe. He says his firm has been contacted by "a handful of service members with similar circumstances."

Major Robert P. Palmer of the defense departments Employer Support of the Guard and Reserves, which resolves civilian workplace issues through informal mediation, notes a rise in the number calls to his center.

"There were 8,245 contacts with our call center last year. We sent 3,152 cases to our volunteer ombudsman for mediation with employers. All were resolved except 87 cases we referred to the Department of Labor, which has the power to enforce USERRA or litigate," explains Palmer.

The Department of Labor reported that it received 70 percent more complaints from reservists who have lost their jobs or employment benefits over the past six years.

In Balad, Muhl tended to "thousands of wounded soldiers." The Air Force's Balad medical facilities handled the lion's share of U.S. casualties before they are flown to military hospitals in Europe or the U.S.

Muhl was one of the nurses who attended to ABC newsman Bob Woodruff when he was seriously injured by a roadside bomb in January last year.

Muhl says she knew her boss at Sutter Health, Dr. Richard Gray, was unhappy that her military service took her away from work. After her first deployment for 11 months in 2003 to 2004, Gray allegedly asked her frequently, "How can you live like this?"

She tried to reach a compromise by transfering to a ground-based unit, but it didn't satisfy her superiors, she said.

Two days after she told Gray about the imminent deployment, he called her to a meeting. "He told me, ‘You had news for me on Tuesday, I have news for you today. You will have no job when you return from the desert,'" Muhl says.

"It was three days before Christmas," she recalls. "There were moments in Balad, when I was distracted. Mortars are flying over the base, there were soldiers in trauma or dying, and I'd be crying. I had to verbally shake myself at times to focus on my work."

When she returned to Sutter Health in May, her employer confirmed that "her position has been eliminated." There were no offers of other positions from Sutter.

"I have met so many dedicated nurses and other medical personnel who willingly answer the call to care for our country's soldiers," Muhl said. "I am bringing this lawsuit so that they will know that the law protects their right to serve in the reserves without sacrificing their jobs."

The lawsuit asks for compensatory and punitive damages including lost back pay, salary and bonus wages, lost fringe benefits and future lost earnings, and emotional distress damages, as well as an injunction to prevent Sutter Health from violating the rights of Lt. Col. Muhl or other reservist employees.

Muhl, who is actively looking for a new job, intends to stay in the military and does not resent her deployments. "I'm committed to the service. It's part of what makes me who I am. I feel I make a difference in saving lives and training younger soldiers," she says.

In the Air Force, the much-decorated nurse has received three Meritorious Service Medals, an Air Medal for flying combat missions, three Commendation Medals and other awards.

As administrative director at Sutter Health, Muhl oversaw a multimillion annual budget and supervised managers of care units as well as cardio-vascular clinical nurse specialists and researchers. She received outstanding performance evaluations.

Muhl finished nursing at St. Mary's College in Moraga and earned a master's in management from Golden Gate University. She coordinated services and standardized nursing protocols at Sutter Pacific heart centers, including California Pacific Medical Center, Marin General and St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco. Sutter Nurse even featured her in uniform and reported on her service in Iraq.

Prior to working at Sutter Health, Muhl was the director of perioperative and critical care services at Alta Bates-Summit Medical Center in Oakland. During her military career, she has served as a chief nurse, an operating room nurse, and an air traffic controller.



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Albion Monitor   January 24, 2007   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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