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Veteran says Lockheed demoted him after deployment

FORT WORTH, Texas — Capt. Gary Ward shipped off to Afghanistan with his Army National Guard unit in April 2011, confident that after returning from active duty he could return to his job at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

A 16-year Army and National Guard veteran, Ward had worked at Lockheed's Fort Worth division since 2005 as a buyer on the F-35 program.

Lockheed, which has hundreds of employees deploy for active service each year, had always supported Ward's military commitments, including leaves for training. He was given his job back in 2009 after he returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq.

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But not this time. When he showed up for work on June 4, Ward says, he had no desk, telephone or computer, and no duties. No one had a plan for what he was supposed to do.

"I walked in the first day and they didn't welcome me back, they didn't say anything. They pointed to an empty cubicle and told me to sit there," Ward said.

After discovering that the accounts he previously handled had been permanently assigned to other buyers, Ward asked the department supervisor what he was to do.

"He just shrugged his shoulders and walked off," said Ward. "They had six weeks notice I would be returning and they had done nothing to prepare to take me back."

That wasn't the reception Ward expected from the largest U.S. defense contractor, a company that routinely runs patriotism-rich television commercials that end with the tag line, "We Never Forget Who We're Working For." After eventually being reassigned to a lesser job, he decided to resign.

Ward, 45, is a divorced father of two daughters, Allyson, 5, and Samantha, 7. His marriage fell apart from the strain of the 2008-09 Iraq deployment, Ward said. Now the Afghanistan employment cost him his job with Lockheed.

Lockheed spokesman Joe Stout said the company met its commitments to Ward.

"Lockheed supported Mr. Ward through several military leaves. When he returned from his most recent leave, Mr. Ward was reinstated with the same pay and benefits," Stout said.

"Instead of taking advantage of training opportunities associated with his position, Mr. Ward voluntarily resigned his employment."

For several weeks after his return, Ward says, he tried to get Lockheed managers to give him a job with real duties.

Nothing changed. He scrounged some work from his colleagues, completed refresher training and required certifications online, but no one offered him a new position. Lockheed managers, he says, were content to pay him to sit and surf the Internet.

"That's not who I am," he said. "I had been a company commander in Afghanistan. It was embarrassing, humiliating to just sit there all day."

A federal law (the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, USERRA) protects the employment rights of members of the armed forces.

The law generally requires that they be given the same or a comparable job and that their career promotion opportunities not be limited because of military service requirements.

Ward appealed to the Department of Labor, which has the authority to enforce the law. Department officials corresponded with Lockheed's lawyers and human resource officials. Lockheed told Ward to use vacation time and personal leave he was due while the matter was being discussed, so he took off until September.

The Department of Labor, in a letter to Lockheed, said that Ward was entitled to his old job or one of similar rank and opportunities for promotion. If needed, Lockheed was to provide a training plan.

When Ward returned to work in September, he said, his managers suggested he take a lesser job.

"There was no training involved. It was menial work that relegated me back into a position I hadn't held since 2007 and was not even remotely on par with returning to the same job position and status I held in 2011."

Convinced that he had no future with Lockheed, Ward agreed to a voluntary severance offer and gave two weeks notice. The company, he says, told him to just go on home and paid his salary for the two weeks.

Now, to add "insult to injury," Ward says, Lockheed has demanded that he repay $27,000 that it says he should not have received because of his deployment.

Ward is investigating whether he can pursue legal action against Lockheed.

Lockheed, says Stout, "has made a strong commitment to support our veterans in a variety of ways. In 2011 alone, the corporation hired more than 3,300 transitioning military personnel and veterans.

"Lockheed and the Aeronautics organization have been recognized for their unwavering support of employees who serve in Guard and Reserve organizations, and we have policies to ensure these employees are treated fairly upon their return to work."

Last year, Lockheed estimated that 1,200 of its employees — about 1 percent of its workforce — was on military leave in the previous 12 months. No specific numbers were available for the aeronautics division.

But Ward says the company's supposed commitment to support members of the military and veterans "is phony."

"It angers me that they wave that flag at the corporate level, but they don't do it. It's patronizing. It's a joke."

 

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