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Friday, March 25, 2011
Disabled Veteran Deserves State Apology, Job
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Earlier this month, Gov. Susana Martinez stood before more than 300 members of the Army National Guard in Santa Fe and thanked them for rescuing thousands of New Mexicans from the deep freeze brought on by the natural gas crisis in February.
"I called on you because I had full confidence that each of you would rise to the challenge, and you did," she told them. "And you did it with honor, and you did it with commitment."
In January, Martinez spoke to Army National Guard troops in Rio Rancho as about 450 of them prepared to deploy for a year's tour in Kosovo.
"You made us feel proud by serving bravely and honorably," she said. "As you prepare for departure and say your farewells, please note the state of New Mexico is grateful for your services."
One of those soldiers — Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Ramirez — was missing that day, sidelined by a knee injury that will keep him from going to Kosovo.
Ramirez, already a veteran of two Iraq tours, deserves Martinez's praise anyway.
He also deserves an apology. Since Ramirez came home to Gallup from the Iraq war four years ago, long before Martinez took office, he has endured a series of injustices, courtesy of the state.
You know what I'm talking about if you've read my previous columns on Ramirez's ordeal — not as a soldier on the battlefield but as an employee in the office of the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
You know what I'm talking about if you've read the small wire story published March 5 in the Journal about Ramirez's landmark legal victory against CYFD for violation of his rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
Jurors came to that conclusion after a three-week trial in Gallup, awarding him $100,000.
The law, known as USERRA, provides protection for disabled veterans by requiring employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the disability.
In Ramirez's case, the disability is post-traumatic stress disorder, a growing malady afflicting members of the military who see and do the gruesome work of war.
Ramirez's case is the first of its kind in New Mexico and catapults us into the small and shameful pantheon of states to drag one of its own employees through trial for USERRA violations. Alabama is the only other state to do so.
"I am ashamed of New Mexico's heavy-handedness against a veteran," said Ramirez's attorney, Rosario Vega Lynn.
No decision has been made by the state on whether to appeal the jury's decision, said Tim Korte, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which will make that determination on behalf of CYFD.
Ramirez, 43, had been an exemplary community support officer with CYFD's Family Services Division (the sanitized name for juvenile probation and parole) in Gallup since 1997. He was lauded by many, including Gallup Mayor Harry Mendoza, for his way with some of the area's most troubled youths.
In 2005, he was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. He returned to work in January 2007.
But things had changed. War had changed him. Two new bosses had changed his job duties to little more than data collection, and he was ordered to meet a quota of 25 contacts per shift — or less than five minutes per client.
Ramirez struggled under the constraints and the mental scars of war — his supervisors called it insubordination.
In March 2008, both he and Vega Lynn requested accommodations for his PTSD.
Instead, he was fired in May 2008. Testimony indicates that supervisors Daniel Berg and Tim Holesinger never mentioned or provided the accommodations Ramirez needed.
Ramirez appealed his termination to the state Personnel Office, which ordered him reinstated with back pay.
He returned to work in August 2009. But once again, he was fired last November, again because of insubordination for not meeting the 25-contact quota — which, testimony indicated, was not CYFD policy.
Ramirez applied for unemployment, but in a parting shot CYFD reported that his termination was the result of misconduct, thus making him ineligible for jobless benefits.
That decision is under appeal, as is his second termination.
(It's worth noting that neither supervisor remains in the office. Holesinger was demoted and shuffled off to another office after exhibiting angry, aggressive, threatening and unprofessional behavior, according to a CYFD notice. Berg is no longer a supervisor with the Gallup office, though CYFD refuses to say why.)
Ramirez, decorated Guardsman, war veteran, hero to at-risk children and father of two, remains in the deep freeze, put there by the state he has served.
And, God love him, despite his atrocious treatment, Ramirez wants his job back.
None of what happened to him occurred under Martinez's watch, of course. CYFD is also under command of new Martinez appointee Yolanda Berumen-Deines.
But the governor has the power to right the wrongs of her predecessor.
"The jury clearly wanted to send a message about the improper way CYFD treated a veteran," Vega Lynn said. "Now it is up to the state to do the right thing."
Martinez can order that the discipline against Ramirez be withdrawn, that he be reinstated with back pay, that USERRA be enforced in state workplaces.
She can tell him that the war between him and New Mexico is over and that the state is grateful, will continue to be grateful, for his services.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.