Veteran with PTSD fights to keep his job as firefighter
By BRENDAN J. LYONS | The (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union | Published: July 10, 2012
TROY — The Troy fire chief is trying to fire a firefighter who is undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder related to his military service in the Iraq war.
Jeffrey Wright, 36, had once served as grand marshal of a city parade. He was an Army Reserve staff sergeant who became a city firefighter in 2007, about two years after he returned from Iraq. He was notified in writing last December by Chief Thomas O. Garrett that he is being targeted for termination. Wright said he has not worked since February 2010 and has been undergoing treatment for PTSD since 2009 related to his combat service.
"The city of Troy's records reflect that you have been continuously absent from the Troy Fire Department and unable to perform the duties of firefighter for more than one year by reason of a disability other than a disability resulting from an occupational injury or disease," Garrett wrote in the letter to Wright. "As permitted by Section 73 of the NYS Civil Service Law, it is the city's intention to terminate your employment ..."
Garrett declined to comment on his decision to seek Wright's termination.
"It's a personnel issue," Garrett said. "Legally, I can't comment on any of that."
The chief's action marks a major turnabout for Wright, who in 2002 was lauded as a city parade marshal along with two of his brothers and their father, all of whom have served in the military. The four soldiers served as grand marshals of Troy's annual Uncle Sam parade that year, and Wright's 2004 deployment to Iraq was later featured in front-page stories in The Record newspaper of Troy.
Last Thursday, a physician at Stratton VA Medical Center wrote a letter that was provided to city officials by Wright's attorney and highlighted Wright's history of treatment for PTSD at the hospital since May 2009. Military records indicate Wright was in a combat theater in the war in Iraq from February 2004 to March 2005 and, like many soldiers, was subjected to trauma of war that included witnessing the deaths of civilians and fellow soldiers, records show.
During one incident, Wright's convoy was hit by an explosive device and he suffered a concussion and other painful injuries as he was thrown by the blast. Others were killed in the explosion, according to an account of the incident listed in Wright's treatment records. Wright has a demolitions background and his duties in Iraq, he said, included guarding supply routes in hostile areas.
The Stratton physician, at Wright's request, wrote the letter for city officials who are reviewing Garrett's request to fire Wright. The letter, dated July 5, outlined Wright's concerns about a hostile work environment and his difficulties with Garrett.
"I am writing at his request to document his reports, over the course of our therapeutic work, of ongoing significant stress at his job," the physician wrote. "On multiple occasions, Mr. Wright reported that he was harassed by Fire Chief Tom Garrett. For example, following a psychiatric hospitalization at the VA, Mr. Wright reports that Fire Chief Garrett contacted Hudson Valley Community College and told them that 'he was in the nut ward and going to kill himself' in order to prevent him from going to paramedic school, which was a job requirement."
Wright said his doctors have advised him to focus on his treatment and encouraged him not to return to work if it enhances his stress and anxiety. He said he wants to resume firefighter duties.
Wright, who is married and has four sons, including a 6-month-old baby, said he wants to return to his firefighter duties, although he acknowledges he struggles with anxiety related to both his military combat experiences and also Garrett's efforts to fire him.
"I've never had an incident on the job," Wright said. "There's never been an issue with my work."
Still, in May 2009 Wright was arrested in East Greenbush after a domestic incident that resulted in him fighting with his father-in-law. Wright said he pleaded guilty to harassment, a violation, but the charge was later dismissed. The additional charges, including misdemeanor assault, forcible touching and endangering the welfare of a child, also were dismissed. The forcible touching charge stemmed from injuries suffered by his father-in-law during the fight.
He sought treatment for PTSD after the arrest, but the department declined to allow him to return to duty, he said.
The East Greenbush arrest also highlighted that at that time Wright had briefly lived in East Greenbush. He said it was temporary as he tried to secure a mortgage to purchase a home for his family in Troy. But it stirred questions about whether he was in conformity with a residency requirement for firefighters and other city employees.
"Things got blown out of proportion," Wright said. "I was written out of work because I was undergoing treatment for trauma and PTSD. All the pressure and stress that was being put on me by the chief was making it impossible for me to make any progress. I was in a real moment of turmoil."
Wright talked about his war experience in guarded terms, but acknowledged he was in combat as part of a unit whose job was to guard the routes along with military and civilian convoys traveled.
"I've experienced anything that there is to probably experience in a war," he said. "You're getting ready to go out on a mission and you're going to a funeral of a soldier that you probably just ate breakfast with 48 hours ago. It takes a toll on you."
Eric Wisher, president of the Troy Uniformed Firefighters Association, declined to comment on details of Wright's case except to say "The union stands behind him."
Two city firefighters, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said union officials have complained to Mayor Lou Rosamilia about Garrett's treatment of firefighters who also serve in the military.
Kevin A. Luibrand, Wright's attorney, said he and his client met with city officials last week and that Rosamilia is expected to make a final decision on Wright's status soon.
"We are hopeful the city accommodates Jeff's struggle from combat to civilian life," Luibrand said. "It's a tough road, but he is a determined young man."