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Disabled vets sue over firing by General Dynamics

As a disabled veteran, Phil Sprinkle couldn't directly serve in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, he put his skills as an Army-trained mechanic to use as a contractor, spending three deployments in Iraq repairing Stryker combat vehicles.

But when Sprinkle prepared to leave for a fourth tour overseas - this time in Afghanistan - he was fired for failing a physical.

So were dozens of other workers at General Dynamics Land Systems in Auburn, near Fort Lewis. Some of them, like Sprinkle, were disabled veterans, and a handful are now suing the General Dynamics Corp. subsidiary under the Americans with Disability Act and state antidiscrimination law, saying the company at least should have assigned them to noncombat-zone work.

"I never required any accommodations because of my disability," he said. "I'm not out in a foxhole with the guys. I'm in an enclosed, solid defense area. I was there 42 months without any issues."

Peter Keating, a spokesman for General Dynamics Land Systems, which is based in Sterling Heights, Mich., declined to discuss the specifics of the case. But generally, he said, workers sign employment contracts stating that they are healthy enough to deploy worldwide with the U.S. military - and if a worker can't meet that standard, the company must give the job to someone who can.

The company has recently started enforcing the provision more strictly, he said. While some of the company's war zone assignments are in well-guarded military bases, workers sometimes must travel with troops to remote posts.

"If you have diabetes, there's not a heck of a lot of refrigeration up in these remote areas in Iraq or Afghanistan," Keating said. "If I can't get them insulin, it would be inappropriate for me to put them in that position."

The company employs more than 500 people around Fort Lewis, an Army base south of Seattle. Its warehouse in Auburn is a parts-and-supply distribution center for 2,000 Stryker vehicles around the world.

While the workers do sign contracts acknowledging that they must pass physicals, those contracts don't supersede the ADA, which requires that companies make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees, said Darryl Parker, the Seattle attorney who brought the case.

Sprinkle, 51, says he contracted hepatitis-C during his eight years in the Army, perhaps when he was treated for severe burns sustained when a vehicle he was riding in exploded in Germany in 1979. His condition hasn't changed since he was hired at General Dynamics Land Systems in 2004, he said.

The other plaintiffs are Nicomedes Soliza, described in the lawsuit as a diabetic who began working at General Dynamics Land Systems as a mechanic in 2005; Rodney Holland, described as a veteran disabled from exposure to Agent Orange, who was hired in 2004; Josef Goetz, a disabled veteran with hypertension, who was hired as a supply representative in 2007; and Dickie Hall, described as a 30 percent disabled veteran who had lung cancer surgery last year. Hall was hired as a depressor mechanic in 2006.

Soliza and Holland had previously deployed to Iraq, while the lawsuit claims that Goetz and Hall were told when they were hired that they would not have to deploy. All were fired last July after failing physical examinations.

Sprinkle said the company's rules for who is fit to be deployed are tied to those of the Army, and General Dynamics Land Systems could have sought waivers that would have allowed the men to continue to work in combat zones. Keating said he could not confirm that.

Paul Steven Miller, a law professor who heads the University of Washington's disability studies program, said that General Dynamics likely had a responsibility to make accommodations for the workers - especially if they had previously shown they could do the work.

Such accommodations could include assigning them to similar jobs in the U.S. or at one of the company's noncombat-zone facilities around the world. However, if making those accommodations would unduly burden the company - if it would be too expensive, or if other jobs did not exist - the company could be excused from that responsibility, he said.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle last month, also claims age discrimination because all of the plaintiffs are over 40. It seeks back pay and benefits as well as damages.

Sprinkle said two of his six daughters still live at home, and the loss of his six-figure income from working 12 hours a day, seven days a week in a combat zone has been difficult.

"There's financial gain, but it's more than that," he said. "It's pride of ownership and knowing I'm taking part in this war on terrorism as much as I can. My aches and pains were nothing compared to what some of these soldiers were doing."

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