Fighter pilot, combat vet fights a new battle with civilian bosses: ‘Quit playing soldier’?

A veteran military pilot, wounded in Iraq where he flew more than 30 combat missions and who is still proudly serving his country in the reserves, claims he has been harassed for years by his employer who wants him to “quit playing soldier.”

His employer is the state of New Jersey.

Col. Jack O’Connell, 50, said the New Jersey Turnpike Authority denied him leave to attend military training in Nebraska last month, and he fears he’s about to be fired, according to the New York Post.

In anticipation of a possible dismissal, he filed a lawsuit against the Authority, alleging that his five active-duty tours in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay resulted in his employer’s denial of the promotions and pay raises that would normally be granted to him.

“When you’re in the military you have an obligation,” O’Connell told the Post. “I get an order, and I go.”

O’Connell began his military career flying Grumman F-14 Tomcats for the Navy in the first Gulf War, where he was decorated for valor.

After leaving active duty in 1993, he earned a law degree from Seton Hall. Later, events compelled him to join the Air National Guard.

“When 9/11 happened, I felt an obligation,” he told the Post. “They wouldn’t let me fly anymore and asked me to be a judge advocate.”

In 2002, he was hired to serve as in-house counsel for the Turnpike Authority.

The Post reported:

He had to leave his job five times to serve his nation, once to oversee legal operations at Guantanamo Bay in 2004-2005. He also worked as legal adviser to Gens. George Casey and David Petraeus in Iraq. His first tour of duty lasted 14 months. He missed nearly six years at his civilian job in total because of the deployments scattered over 13 years.

In 2007, he was wounded in Iraq while running for cover during a rocket attack.

O’Connell claims in his suit that the authority harasses him every time he returns to his civilian job. He claims in his lawsuit that his work-related emails were hacked and, when leaving for military missions, his belongings would be boxed and shipped.

According to the Post:

Reservists’ jobs are protected by state and federal rules. If they are called up for duty, employers are required by law to pay them for 90 days of active duty per calendar year.

They are also obligated to protect reservists’ jobs even if their tours of duty run up to five years, and time spent in combat zones is not counted against that threshold, said Richard Galex, a lawyer representing O’Connell.

“His claims of harassment were thoroughly scrutinized by the district court and were found to have no merit,” Thomas Bigosinski, an Authority lawyer told the Post.

But O’Connell claims that the authority misses the contribution he’s making.

“Four-star generals have said to me that we cannot do our mission without the reserves,” he said. “If it’s not us doing it, then who does it?”

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