January 11, 2006

National Guard troops sue government in pay dispute

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Four members of the Massachusetts
National Guard filed a $73 million class-action lawsuit on
Wednesday against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other
military officials in a dispute over on-the-job expenses since
the September 11 attacks.

The lawsuit, which also names Massachusetts Gov. Mitt
Romney, appears to be the first of its kind in the U.S. Army
National Guard, which has faced heavy demands since September
11, 2001, lawyers involved in the case said.

The four men from Massachusetts and New Hampshire filed the
suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of soldiers in about 300
jobs in the Massachusetts National Guard owed money for meals,
car fuel, lodging and daily allowances, their lawyers said.

"The National Guard refused to reimburse millions of
dollars to soldiers called for active duty following the 2001
terror attacks," John Shek, counsel for the plaintiffs, said at
a news conference.

"We have found that the closer we look at this the worse
the situation gets."

Officials at the National Guard were not immediately
available to comment.

Thousands of soldiers in the Guard, a part-time force whose
440,000 members live civilian lives while doing periodic
military training, were mobilized after the September 11
attacks to protect airports, borders and other possible
targets. Tens of thousands also have been deployed to fight in
Iraq and Afghanistan.


At the heart of the suit is the system of paying expenses
to Guard troops who say they traveled hundreds of miles (km)
and paid for their own food, car fuel and lodging to perform
their duties.

Shek said while National Guard soldiers across the country
were paid under federal orders known as "title 10" that
included daily allowances, hundreds of troops in Massachusetts
were given different orders known as "title 32" that excluded
daily allowances but required the same work.

The controversy cuts to the core of the Guard's dual
federal and state roles. For state missions, the governor can
call on the Guard during emergencies such as storms, fires,
earthquakes or civil disturbances. The U.S. president also can
call on them for federal missions.

Capt. Louis Tortorella, 51, estimated he was owed $14,600 a
year for the two years he worked before he retired in October
2003. He said there were about 1,000 to 1,500 Guard soldiers
who worked in Massachusetts owed similar expenses.

After the September 11 attacks, Tortorella was called up to
protect the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water to about
2.5 million people in metropolitan Boston and is about a
five-hour drive each day from his home in New Hampshire.

In their complaint, the soldiers said their requests for
compensation were repeatedly denied.

"It was always either shoved to the side or they turned
their backs on us," said Sgt. Wayne Gutierrez, 39, who
estimates he was owed at least $17,500 a year for his 2-1/2
years in the Army National Guard in Massachusetts.