Green Light for Military Volunteers

December 23, 1991

A unanimous Supreme Court has held that an Alabama hospital worker could not be refused leave of absence for military service. The worker had asked for a three-year leave for active duty with the National Guard. He had sued after hospital administrators called his request "unreasonable" under the law providing for military leaves. If there is a surprise here, it is that the case had to go all the way to the Supreme Court for resolution.

The decision has strong implications for Baltimore, which has had a rule that no more than 100 police officers could be military reservists. A former city policeman, Eric Kolkhorst, was ordered to quit the Marine Corps Reserve because of that rule and filed a lawsuit raising substantially the same issue as the Alabama case. Mr. Kolkhorst had asked for two weeks off for summer training. In federal court, he won $4,164 for violation of his civil rights and the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. Now the high court's handling of the Alabama case has provided a probable answer to the city's appeal.

Budget problems, suburban competition for experienced officers and worsening crime rates in some sections of the city make it easy to sympathize with city officials trying hard to keep uniformed police officers from leaving for the military ranks. But sympathy aside, the 100-officer rule bumps head-on into the federal power to raise armies. Citizens in a country served by volunteer soldiers cannot be prevented from signing up for military duties, despite the good intentions of their employers, even local-government employers.

It will be expensive, to be sure, for Baltimore to provide the extra staffing to make up for the officers who depart for reserve training, active duty tours or call-ups in time of need. That is money sorely pressed city departments could readily use elsewhere. But it is a cost that must be paid to protect the freedoms all Americans enjoy. Citizen-soldiers sacrifice lost civilian pay and lost opportunities as they face the dangers of carrying America's flag against hostile forces in far-off lands. That sacrifice must be matched by the recognition at home that these volunteers should be encouraged and helped, not restrained from stepping forward.

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