A hero U.S. pilot who is still active in the reserves claims his bosses at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority have harassed him for years. During talks with his bosses about possible promotions, he was told, “I’d like to move you up, but you need to quit playing soldier.”
Col. Jack O’Connell began his military career flying Navy F-14 fighter jets during the First Gulf War in 1991. He flew over 30 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and was honored for bravery after flying dozens of strike missions in and around Baghdad. He attended law school after leaving active duty in 1993.
After the September 11 attacks, O’Connell joined the Air National Guard. “When 9/11 happened, I felt an obligation,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me fly anymore and asked me to be a judge advocate.”
According to The New York Post, O’Connell was hired by the Turnpike Authority in 2002 as an in-house counsel lawyer.
O’Connell is suing the company for blocking him from promotions and raises for years because of his five active-duty tours in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. He missed almost 6 years of work at his civilian job, scattered across 13 years, because of the deployments. “When you’re in the military you have an obligation,” O’Connell told reporters. “I get an order, and I go.”
O’Connell also claims that he was bullied by his superiors at the Turnpike Authority. He says his belongings were not protected while he was away on military duty and that his work e-mails were hacked. His supervisors did not believe his military orders and they were suspicious of the long periods of time he was gone from work. One of them asked, “How do we know he was in Baghdad and not on a beach in Key West?”
O’Connell feels the Authority is not acknowledging the sacrifice he and others in the military have made for their country. He said, “Four-star generals have said to me that we cannot do our mission without the reserves. If it’s not us doing it, then who does it?”
Civilian employees who are also in the reserves are protected from discrimination by state and federal laws. Their employers must pay them for up to 90 days of active duty each year.
Richard Galex, the lawyer representing O’Connell, stated that employers are also expected to protect the jobs of those in the reserves for up to 5 years during tours of duty. Time that they spend in combat is not supposed to count against them either.
Thomas Bigosinski, a lawyer with the Turnpike Authority, stated, “His claims of harassment were thoroughly scrutinized by the district court and were found to have no merit.”