Desert Storm veterans return to find their jobs missing in action

December 06, 1991|By John Rivera

Michael Duears and Samuel Garrett Jr. were assigned to room together when they entered the 102nd class of the State Police Academy in January. But soon they would share another common experience: a call to duty along with two other state police cadets in the Iraq war mobilization.

They were guaranteed, on return from military duty, a spot in the next academy class. But every member of that class was fired the day after graduation as part of the recent state budget cutbacks.

And the Desert Storm veterans -- Mr. Garrett, Mr. Duears, Michael Thompson and Corey Ricks -- who would have been patrolling Maryland highways with their classmates had it not been for the war -- question the fairness of their firing.

"It makes me extremely bitter," said Mr. Garrett, 24, of Columbia. His Marine Corps Reserve unit was assigned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for training, and the war ended before it could be shipped to Saudi Arabia.

"Out in California, a lot of guys were worried about their jobs," he said. "I wasn't worried about mine. The last thing they're going to fire is police officers."

The four men, who were fired along with the entire 103rd academy class on Nov. 5, have sought other jobs in law enforcement. Mr. Garrett, along with Mr. Ricks, 22, of Edgewood, is training to be a Mass Transit Administration police officer.

Mr. Duears, 26, of Frederick, is working as a protective services officer for the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center at Fort Detrick.

"It's more like baby-sitting scientific instruments than security," he said of his job.

And Mr. Thompson, 21, of Lexington Park in St. Mary's County, has applied to work as a deputy sheriff.

Mr. Garrett joined the Marine Corps in 1987 after an injury ended his football career as a running back at Bowie State College and he wanted to save up money to go to the University of Maryland at College Park. But he never made it to College Park, deciding instead to pursue a desire he had since he was at Hammond High School in Columbia to become a Maryland State trooper.

He applied for and was accepted into the first class this year, which was scheduled to begin in January.

Mr. Garrett only attended two weeks of the 102nd class, which began in January, before his reserve unit was called to active duty.

"It just hit me like a ton of bricks," Mr. Garrett said.

"I was pretty upset because I really wanted to finish the academy. But I kind of expected it coming down, the more things that started happening" in the move toward war, he said.

But he was reassured after talking with his instructors.

"They told me I would have my position and they would do everything to assure that I would get back in my spot," he said.

Meanwhile, his roommate Mr. Duears, who was in the Maryland National Guard, feared that he too would be called up. "There was a morbid feeling that came over me," Mr. Duears said. "And I said to myself, 'Gee, I really feel bad for him,' and I was hoping the same thing wouldn't happen to me."

But three weeks later, Mr. Duears was on his way to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., where he spent three months with his unit.

Mr. Thompson was scheduled to enter Class 102, but was called up by his Marine Corps unit before the class started.

Mr. Ricks was called up before any of them. He left the 101st class in November 1990 after completing 18 weeks when his Army National Guard unit was sent to Saudi Arabia. He served as a military policeman at a prisoner of war camp.

All four temporary soldiers were promised positions in the next available academy class once they returned, and all of them entered the fiscally doomed 103rd class in July.

Everything was going as planned and promised until the budget ax fell. Mr. Duears remembered that the entire class of 29 would-be troopers was out on the firing range when they were called in early and told that they, along with 54 other troopers, would be fired.

"Most people just had a look of shock on their faces," Mr. Duears said. "Like, this can't happen, it's never happened, they never fire troopers."

Mr. Garrett said that the shock was not limited to the students. "It was the instructors, too. Everyone was hit pretty hard. It was just devastating," he said.

The staff at the academy made a decision that even though the layoffs were slated for Nov. 5, a month before the six-month class was scheduled to end, all 29 trainees would finish the course and receive certification as police officers. The instructors volunteered to work overtime and weekends without extra pay to finish the program early. Classes during the week often went until midnight.

And on Nov. 4, the 29 members of the 103rd academy class had their graduation. "Usually, graduation is supposed to be a moment when you are supposed to be happy," Mr. Duears said. "I don't think anybody was happy."

At the ceremony, the state police superintendent, Col. Elmer H. Tippett Jr., gave each graduate a state police tie clasp and collar ornament. "We were troopers in title but nothing else," Mr. Duears said.

"We were given everything except a badge and a job."

But for the four veterans, the moment was especially bitter. They felt that their jobs should have been preserved because they were called away by the war, in accordance with the Vietnam-era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act.

And they feel that their seniority, dating to their oaths on entering the academy, should have been respected.

"The rest of my trooper friends who graduated in the 101st class, they're still working as troopers. And now I'm working for the Mass Transit Administration," said Mr. Ricks. "It makes me feel upset. It's a little absurd."

"I can't even express how frustrated I am," Mr. Thompson said. "Everyone in my original class still has their position. And why? Because I went over and fought a war."

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