Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
John Baker, Attorney, Baker Williams Law Firm, Minneapolis
Attorney John Baker chairs the Military Action Group, a bipartisan coalition which includes representatives from state agencies, veteran's service organizations, legislators, attorneys, and others, working on veteran-friendly legislation. Before starting his law practice, he retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a Gunnery Sergeant after serving 22 years in various infantry, artillery and administrative capacities in numerous locations within the United States and around the world. His law practice focuses in the areas of business law, civil litigation, military and veterans issues and real estate law.
Comments From John Baker
Question: What do you see as the most significant challenges facing this generation of returning veterans?
The latest number I saw was that one and a half million veterans have now served in these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and half a million of them have some kind of combat stress issues that could lead to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). A huge number have TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury — one of the signature injuries of this war. About half to three-quarters of those have not gotten treatment for their problem.
So one of the things I see as a criminal defense attorney is veterans with undiagnosed, untreated PTSD who are getting into criminal law trouble, or they're getting fired from their employment because they are not able to deal with their employers. They're angry, and have a lot of different issues, and these issues are not being addressed.
The challenges that they have coming back home are pretty broad. But one of the number one challenges they have in coming back home is that there are no jobs. Then you add on top of that some combat stress issues, and you've got veterans in crisis.
I am chairing the Military Action Group at the Legislature; it's a bipartisan coalition of legislators and veterans that works to pass veterans initiatives. What we are looking at doing with some of these initiatives we're working on is breaking down those barriers. So if a veteran is in criminal court, let's bring the resources that are available to bear at that point — instead of what we did after Vietnam, when we just incarcerated many of those veterans. Many of those Vietnam veterans are still having issues with addiction, employment and incarceration, 30 or 40 years after the war.
Question: How would a veterans' court work?
It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. But what it does is it connects veterans with treatment options, instead of just incarcerating them where there are no treatment options. There is no treatment for combat veterans in our Department of Corrections right now, absolutely none.
Question: Beyond the fact that there just aren't enough jobs, are veterans facing other barriers in looking for employment?
Absolutely. There are tons of readjustment issues. There is settling back in with their families, coming back from a combat environment to Minnesota. And the families have to readjust as well. But a lot of it is getting employment, getting back into society, and getting mental health issues addressed. We have a lot of women veterans that are suffering trauma from their military experience — there is a very high rate of military sexual trauma.
Question: Some states have made military status a protected class in their discrimination laws. Are you aware of any proposals to include military status as a protected characteristic in Minnesota?
I've always worked under the auspices that veterans aren't under the same protected class envelope as minorities, women, and some of the other protected classes. I always look at it as a different slice of the pie.
Last year we passed veteran's preference in state government contracting. And when we went through that process, part of the difficulty was that folks were afraid we'd get the same piece of the pie as other protected classes, as minority-owned businesses. We argued no, it's a separate slice of the pie.
I'd be interested in taking a look at that, though. We're on the cutting edge of a lot of things in Minnesota — for instance, the veteran's sentencing mitigation statute that was passed a couple of years ago. We were the second state in the nation to do that, to address our veterans in the criminal justice system. I think we're on the cutting edge of a lot of things. But to answer your question — no.
Question: How is your group proposing to strengthen veterans preference laws?
There has been a law on the books since the 1970s for veterans preference in county and city employment. It assigns a point system to hiring, so a veteran will get five extra points in the hiring process, and if they're a disabled veteran, they get 10 points. I used to work for a state agency and I found it was very ironic that, for instance, if you worked for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, there was no veterans preference — there was no veterans preference for state agencies. The law was changed last year to get veterans preference at the state agency level, and there are also some termination protections that are available to veterans. If you look at Minnesota statute 197.46, that's the veterans preference statute.
But right now, if a veteran's rights are abrogated — for instance, if they don't get veterans preference in hiring, or if they aren't afforded the protections in termination — they have to hire their own attorney to fight that fight all the way through. And they're going up against a county or state who has virtually unlimited resources to hire their own attorneys to fight back, and it's a very uneven playing ground for veterans. There are not even any attorney fees available in the statute — even if the veteran is successful, they have to pay for it out of pocket.
If you're a federal employee and your rights are abrogated, you can go to the Minnesota Department of Labor, and they will investigate it for you. If they find that you suffered some harm, it will be sent to the DOJ (Department of Justice), and they'll fight to get you your job back. They have jurisdiction over companies that violate veterans protections, but not state government.
So what I am proposing this year is, let's create an investigatory role at the state level, just like they do at the federal government. Let's even the playing field. We have the (veteran's preference) law on the books, but it doesn't do a whole lot. There are very few veterans who can afford to hire an attorney. The law is there, but it doesn't really work very well at all.
Question: Vietnam veterans returning home were not always welcomed back, and sometimes viewed with suspicion and subjected to negative stereotypes. Are today's veterans also subjected to stereotypes to some extent?
The answer is yes, and we are very concerned about that. I would say that the majority of our returning veterans, who have been through some of the finest training leadership programs in the world, are coming back home, ready to be contributing members and leaders in our society. Not all of them have psychological issues; it's the smaller percentage. The bigger percentage are very squared away individuals. They just need a little help — a little veterans preference in employment. Let's get them into our positions of leadership. It's absolutely a huge concern for us.
Question: Do we see any evidence that some employers are reluctant to hire veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan because of concerns about post-traumatic stress or other mental health issues?
Absolutely. I have lots of anecdotal evidence of that. Of course, not a lot of employers are going to come out and say, we are going to discriminate against veterans because of these issues. But there is tons of evidence that we are seeing that. What we hear from a lot of government agencies, city and county folks throughout Minnesota, is that they don't want to hire a veteran, because it will be a pain in the ass to have to fire them, because you have to go through the veterans preference law. Or they don't want to hire a veteran, because they'll have some disability, and we've got to pay attention to disability issues. There is lots of anecdotal evidence I hear like that.