Good afternoon and thank you for coming here today. My name is Eric Dreiband and I serve as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights here at the U.S. Department of Justice.
It is a great honor to be here with so many colleagues from the Department of Justice and our special guests from the National Guard, our sister agencies – the United States Department of Labor and the Consumer Finance Protection Board. Also with us are students and faculty from Veterans Legal Clinics at the Georgetown University Law Center and the veterans and members of the guard and reserve who have joined us, including those whom we have helped in recent months. I would especially like to thank the active duty soldiers from Fort Meyer who performed our color guard duties this morning.
Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, and it memorializes the moment 101 years ago when, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War on the Western Front ended.
Since 1954, we have marked this occasion as an opportunity to thank all veterans, whether you served here at home or overseas, in wartime or in peace; whether you served proudly in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard. All of our veterans are part of an unbroken chain of patriots who have served this country with honor through the life of our nation.
During more than two centuries of our history, millions of women and men have served in our armed forces. We recognize many of them as heroes; a small number have become famous for their leadership as generals or particular acts of heroism. Most of our servicemembers are known only to their families, friends, and fellow servicemembers; they did not and do not serve to achieve fortune or fame. Many were drafted and did their duty; others volunteered and sought to protect and defend our country out of a sense of patriotic duty and love of America and each other.
I want to mention two largely forgotten patriots who fought in World War I. Their names are John and Neilson “Net” Poe.
In 1914, Baltimore native named John Poe joined the British Army as a private. John Poe was then 42 years old and a veteran of the Spanish-American War. He also served in the military in the Philippines, Central America, and elsewhere. In private life, he worked as a miner, detective, football coach, cowpuncher, and in various other occupations.
By September 1915, John Poe was serving in the trenches in northern France. He was a soldier fighting with the British Army’s famous Scottish Black Watch infantry unit. During the Battle of Loos, he “went over the top,” charged in the direction of the German lines, was shot, and died.
In 1917, John’s brother Net Poe was 41 years old, and when the United States declared war on Germany, Net enlisted in the United States Army. He received a commission as a lieutenant in the Army’s American Expeditionary Force and was assigned to the “Rainbow Division.”
Poe and the Rainbow Division traveled from the United States to France, and Net saw combat in multiple battles on the Western Front in 1918. In late May 1918, near the town of Cantigny, he led an attack against the German army, and his unit captured over 200 enemy soldiers.
After the Battle of Cantigny, Lieutenant Poe and his division shifted to other parts of the Western Front. On July 18, a German machine-gun bullet hit him, and another killed his commanding officer, a captain.
Despite his gunshot wounds, Net continued fighting, and then a German bomb exploded nearby. One piece of shrapnel hit Net’s arm below the elbow, another hit his other arm below the elbow, and another hit him in the back.
Still, Net persisted. Despite potentially fatal injuries, according to one of his fellow soldiers, Net “took command, safely entrenched his men, and remained with them twenty-four hours” before he was evacuated to a military hospital.
Lieutenant Poe survived, barely, and he spent the remaining few months of the war recovering in French hospitals. When the Armistice came on November 11, he was in a hospital in Nice, on France’s southern coast.
Although for him the war was over, Lieutenant Poe was determined to make one final and very personal mission. He decided to find his brother John’s grave.
Net did not know the location of John’s grave, and he contacted John’s commander, a Captain Miller of the Black Watch. Captain Miller told Net that John Poe was “buried with several of his comrades on the left of the place called ‘Lone Tree,’ and a mound marks the grave.”
Net obtained a leave of absence from the hospital and traveled from Nice across France to Loos, in the northern part of the country. After Net arrived in Loos, he spent three days searching for John’s grave and did not find it. According to one British report, “[c]onditions after the battle [of Loos] were such that it was almost impossible to register the many graves.”
In early 1919, Net Poe caught a transport ship home to the United States. He received the Distinguished Service Cross, ended his military service, rented a room, and resumed his life as an assistant football coach. He worked as a coach for more than two decades and then retired. Net lived in the same room for 44 years, from 1919 until 1963, when he died. His brother John’s grave has never been found.
I mention the story of these two brothers because, in my mind, it captures the American ideal of the citizen soldier. John and Net Poe did not serve in World War I to seek fame or fortune. They did so out of a sense of duty and love, love for their country and each other, and with the hope that they could help create a better world. Their story is largely or entirely forgotten today. Their motives, dreams, and ambitions were no different than countless other American patriots, including many of you who have joined us today. To them, and to you, I am grateful.
As the Assistant Attorney General, I am entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the rights of the brave men and women of our nation’s armed forces, and the veterans who have served in the past, are safeguarded. I take this responsibility very seriously.
Since September 11, 2001, the Army and Air National Guard and the Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard Reserve have performed almost a million activations of Guardsmembers and Reservists from their civilian life to active duty in support of the Global War on Terror – many of them in Afghanistan and Iraq and many for several years at a time. These men and women, in combination with over a million full time active duty servicemen and women from all of our service branches, constitute millions of new veterans who have completed their military service and returned to civilian life. Each year, at least another 200,000 do the same. Our 9/11 generation of veterans are joining the ranks of John and Net Poe and so many others who served our nation.
Our veterans and servicemembers sacrifice so much to carry the burdens of this nation. It is our responsibility to ensure that our veterans should not face discrimination based on physical and mental disabilities incurred as a result of that service.
It is our responsibility to ensure that while our active duty servicemen and women and members of the Guard and Reserve are deployed, they should not have to worry that the financial sacrifices they are making will result in adverse actions, such as lenders foreclosing on their homes.
They should not have to worry about facing employment discrimination due to their service.
They should not have to worry about being able to vote while stationed away from home.
They should not have to worry about being targeted for fraud and scams.
I am very fortunate to be able to serve here at the Justice Department. My role here enables me and my colleagues in the Department’s Civil Rights Division to serve those who have served us. Gathered with us today are the Chiefs and Directors from our sections who lead our defense of our veterans and servicemembers. They will discuss their efforts in recent months and our plans going forward and I wanted take this opportunity to thank them and to give a brief overview of some of our recent accomplishments.
The Civil Rights Division enforces multiple federal laws that protect the rights of servicemembers and veterans. The Division protects servicemembers’ civilian employment rights by enforcing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA.
We protect their voting rights by enforcing the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, also known as UOCAVA.
And, we protect their financial and housing security rights by enforcing the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or the SCRA.
The Division also strives to protect the rights of servicemember spouses, dependents, and veterans eligible for certain protections under the SCRA and UOCAVA.
Finally, the Division works to protect the rights of veterans with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and conducts outreach to educate servicemembers, military family members, veterans, legal professionals, and advocates about these federal protections.
Our partners in the Civil Division and the United States Attorney’s Offices have also focused on fraud directed at veterans. For example, last week, the Department secured our first conviction in a Texas case that involves an international multi-million-dollar scheme involving fraudulent claims filed with the Veterans Administration based on personal information stolen from veterans.
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Uniformed Services
Employment and Reemployment Rights Act Enforcement
Turning to our enforcement of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act: Since January 2017, our SCRA settlements have included over $10 million in damages and civil penalties. Earlier this year, the Division obtained a $1.59 million settlement against a property management company in Norfolk, Virginia for filing unlawful default judgments against military tenants on active duty, and a $3 million settlement against an auto lease company for refusing to refund lease amounts paid in advance to servicemembers who terminated their leases on account of their military service.
Additionally, in 2017 and 2018, the Division reviewed 95 claims involving employment rights of servicemembers and veterans under USERRA, offered representation to 18 claimants, and filed five complaints on their behalf.
For example, last week, we filed suit on behalf of Naval Reservist Lindsay Hunger against Walmart for refusing to hire her based on her upcoming Reserve training obligations.
The Civil Rights Division entered three court-approved consent decrees under USERRA, and facilitated 15 additional settlements. The grand total for these settlements is over $340,000 in cash payments, pension credits, sick leave, and backdated promotions, as well as one job reinstatement.
For example, on April 1, 2019, the Department of Justice completed a settlement on behalf of Captain Rebecca Cruz, a member of the Arizona Air National Guard, resolving her USERRA claim against the City of Glendale, Arizona. Our complaint in that matter, filed on August 14, 2017, alleged that the City terminated Captain Cruz’s employment because she requested a military leave of absence. In resolving Captain Cruz’s USERRA claim, Glendale agreed to compensate her for both lost wages and benefits, and to provide her with pension credits to her Arizona State Pension Plan.
Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act Enforcement
I also want to talk briefly about the right to vote and our enforcement of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
As you know, the right to vote is enshrined in our Constitution and other laws. Voting is the distinctive feature of our republic, and in this country, we select our leaders, including during wartime. And, with their votes, our servicemembers are able to render a judgement about their civilian leaders. Unlike countries ruled by dictators, emperors, monarchs, and tyrants, our servicemembers can vote for or against their commander in chief and other civilian leaders.
To protect the right to vote, Congress enacted the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act in 1986. This law protects members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marine; their family members; and United States citizens who reside outside the United States. The law requires that the states and territories allow protected citizens to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices.
The Division closely monitors UOCAVA compliance in special, primary, and general elections for federal office throughout the country, to ensure that Americans serving in our uniformed services, their families, and U.S. citizens living overseas have a meaningful opportunity to request and receive their absentee ballots in time to vote and have their votes counted.
Prior to the 2018 federal elections, for example, the Division monitored each State and Territory to determine whether there were obstacles to timely transmission of UOCAVA absentee ballots, and then asked the States and Territories to confirm that these ballots were, in fact, timely sent.
As part of that nationwide enforcement effort, in 2018 the Division sued two states to enforce UOCAVA, and obtained consent decrees in both actions. In recent years, the Division has also worked out numerous other informal resolutions with States to protect the rights of military and overseas voters.
Beyond the servicemember-specific statutes that the Division enforces, we strive to use all the tools available to us to protect the rights of service members, veterans, and military family members. Our enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a critical tool toward that end.
Under this broad civil rights statute, veterans with disabilities, whether acquired during service or after, are protected from disability discrimination in virtually all aspects of community life. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, in state and local government programs and services, and in access to and enjoyment of places of public accommodation. Put simply, qualified veterans with disabilities should not be denied employment opportunities based on unfounded assumptions about what they can and cannot do. They should not encounter physical barriers when attempting to access polling places and town halls. And they should not be denied access to neighborhood shops and services because they use a service animal.
Our recent work has remedied discrimination in these areas and more. And we will continue vigorously to enforce the ADA so that those who have served, and have given so much, can fully and equally participate in and enjoy all the opportunities that this country has to offer.
Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative
In December of 2014, the Department of Justice created the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, which is now housed in the Civil Rights Division. The SVI coordinates with Department of Justice components, the U.S. Military, and other federal agencies to build a comprehensive legal support and protection network focused on serving servicemembers, veterans, and their families.
The SVI facilitates and coordinates listening sessions between the Department and military members to identify the legal issues impacting today’s servicemembers. It educates military members and legal practitioners about the federal laws protecting servicemembers, as well as the Department’s work on behalf of servicemembers, veterans, and military family members. Following these listening sessions, the SVI relays matters with litigation potential to the Division’s litigating components. The SVI’s referrals have enabled the Division to initiate a number of investigations and cases. In October of this year, the SVI conducted a training session with hundreds of members of the Guard and Reserve at March Air Reserve Base, and tomorrow the SVI will be instructing JAG attorneys and legal aid professionals in diagnosing and resolving USERRA and SCRA matters, at Fort Benning.
The violation of anyone’s civil rights is a disgrace, and the Department of Justice will not tolerate anyone who violates the rights of veterans, servicemembers, or anyone else in our nation. Veterans and servicemembers have demonstrated the willingness to fight for us in the face of danger, and at great personal sacrifice. They have fought for us, and we at the Department of Justice remain committed to fighting for them.
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Author: November 7, 2019