Thank you, Joe, and thank you all so much for having me here today.
Events in the Middle East, the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent disruption in the United Kingdom of a plot to explode liquid bombs aboard in flight airliners remind us all that the world is as dangerous today as when you wore proudly your uniform. In the face of these challenges, our servicemen and women continue to march forward to defend our neighborhoods and way of life, to defend our values, to defend America.
For me, it is deeply humbling to be here, in a room filled with heroes. For your service, for your sacrifice, I wish to thank you. I thank you both personally and on behalf of my family – because we feel so blessed to enjoy the freedoms you have protected – and I thank you on behalf of our President, who I have known as a leader, as a boss, and as a good friend. I know how much the people of our armed forces mean to George Bush the man, as well as to George Bush the Commander in Chief. His support and his heart are with those who serve, and those who have served, always. I also wish to thank the Disabled American Veterans for its leadership in preserving the rights of disabled veterans. You are one of the leading voices for veterans across this great nation. We listen to your concerns and always welcome your views. I am honored that you have welcomed me here today and given me the opportunity to let you know that the Justice Department makes it a priority to enforce the Civil Rights laws for American veterans, and how dedicated the Department is to that job.
A well-known poem by Father Dennis Edward O’Brien of the U.S. Marine Corps is particularly relevant to this topic. I imagine you all know this short piece by heart, but I hope you don’t mind hearing Father O’Brien’s profound words again this morning:
"It is the soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier, Who salutes the flag, Who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protestor to burn the flag."
Those truths have perhaps never been expressed more clearly or more simply.
It is because of these truths – because it is America’s soldiers who won and who protect our incredible freedoms – that the law of our land gives certain protections to those who serve.
The law recognizes that although we can never thank you enough for your service, we can take away some of the worries that soldiers might face when they are deployed. So we, in the government, make these promises:
We promise that a soldier’s job will still be theirs when they come home; that they cannot be discriminated against by their employer for their military service.
We promise that a soldier will be able to vote in our elections while they are serving, and that their vote will be counted.
And we promise soldiers that their financial security will be protected. They will have procedural protections in civil actions, like lawsuits or property re-possessions, when serving overseas.
These three basic civil rights are enforced by the Department of Justice, and I can assure you that the Department’s staff and prosecutors are deeply committed to these enforcement efforts. We feel that it is an honor to serve those in uniform in this way. It is our way of saying thank you for your service.
But our dedication and hard work on the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) are meaningless to soldiers who don’t know that they have these rights. That’s why the Department is focusing on making sure that our men and women in uniform are aware of these protections and can learn more about them.
I’m pleased to announce today that the Department of Justice has just launched a new website – www.servicemembers.gov – where servicemembers and their families can go to learn about these civil rights. The site provides some original content as well as links to important information provided by many of our sister agencies – like the Department of Labor and the IRS. In this way, the site will provide servicemembers – and the people who support and employ them – with a single location where they can go to learn about their rights.
Servicemembers.gov is also a good place to begin if a soldier thinks that they have been denied any of these rights; the site provides clear instructions, for example, on how to file a claim.
Disabled American Veterans has a terrific network of members and supporters, and I hope that your community will find this new website to be a user-friendly and information-rich resource. The Justice Department relies, in part, on groups like yours to get the word out about this new tool. So thank you for helping us help our men and women in uniform.
This will be the first time, the first war, when veterans returning from conflict will have near-universal access to the Internet. I am hopeful that this website will take advantage of that fact, and that knowledge of the civil rights protected by these important laws will become near-universal as well.
I’d like to give you a few examples of civil rights cases that the Department is involved in right now, to illustrate that this issue is not about laws or statutes written on paper; it’s about real people, real soldiers and their families, who need and deserve the protection of the country they have sacrificed so much to protect.
The Department has recently filed its first class-based USERRA [you-SAIR-uh] complaint, alleging that American Airlines violated rights of employees who are also pilots in the military. The case was brought on behalf of Mark Woodall, Michael McMahon and Paul Madson – three military pilots who were also employed by American Airlines as commercial pilots – and alleges that American Airlines reduced the employment benefits of those pilots who had taken military leave, while not reducing the same benefits for pilots who had taken similar, non-military leave.
Since its enactment in 1994, this law has prohibited employers from discriminating or retaliating against an employee or applicant for employment because of such person's past, current or future military obligation. But in this, the first class-action case under this statute, the Department hopes to provide important precedent that will allow us to enforce the law even more vigorously in the future.
In another vivid example of the people for whom we enforce these laws, the Department recently won a consent decree from an employer who terminated employment of a service man named Richard White the very same day that Richard told his boss he was being called to active duty. The consent decree requires the employer to pay back wages to Mr. White.
What leads an employer to treat a soldier like an inconvenience is something for a higher power to judge. But here on earth, we have USERRA, and we’ll use it for Richard White and for soldiers like him, as often as is necessary.
In recent years, with so many uniformed services personnel serving in remote locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the Justice Department has made it an even higher priority to monitor compliance with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).
Earlier this year, for example, we addressed long-standing structural issues affecting uniformed military personnel posted both in this country and overseas who wished to vote in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. These states had run-off elections which were too close in time to the primary to allow these voters to receive and return ballots. With the cooperation of state election officials, we were able to redress each of these violations.
As the 2006 general election approaches, we will continue vigilant protection of the voting rights of servicemembers, their families, and other overseas citizens. On August 4, 2006, I sent a letter to all state election officials.
The letter urges that every possible effort be taken to send overseas ballots as early as feasible before the election and to adopt new procedures to facilitate delivery and return of ballots, especially for those who are defending our country in remote or combat locations. To be denied the chance to vote would be an unacceptable insult to the men and women who protect the very right to vote.
I want to touch, last, on the enforcement of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Thanks to this law, men and women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have procedural protections in place that will allow them to be less distracted by litigation back home – by someone trying to repossess a leased car, evict their spouse and children, sell their house at an auction, or run up penalties on credit cards with 21 percent interest rates. It’s hard to respond to a civil lawsuit while you’re focused on improvised explosive devices, and the law protects servicemembers for that reason.
As any military officer will tell you, enforcement of this provision is a readiness and morale issue. Men and women in uniform, like all Americans, have to honor their obligations.
However, Congress long ago decided, wisely I think, to provide protections to them against lawsuits while deployed overseas on active duty.
Most individuals and institutions comply with this law as soon as a servicemember or military lawyer educates them about the law. In the event, however, that an individual servicemember is denied a protection, the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorneys’ Offices stand ready to step in and participate in cases.
President Calvin Coolidge once said that "The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten."
At the Department of Justice, our nation’s defenders are remembered every day. We are ever-aware that sons, daughters, mothers and fathers have voluntarily exchanged civilian clothes for military uniforms and the obligations of military service – and for that they deserve our deepest, ongoing thanks and our vigorous enforcement of their civil rights protections.
Thank you so much for having me here today. May God bless you and the work of this organization, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.