Court: BCD No Disqualifier for Vet Preference

A Waukesha, Wisc., man who lost out on a good job with the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin after it decided he didn't qualify for the veteran's preference because he left the Navy for "bad conduct" says he's happy the Court of Appeals has ruled against the college.

"I did what the VA told me and ended up in the middle of something I didn't expect," Mark Schirripa said. "I wasn't planning on jumping on a grenade with this."

Schirripa, 51, doubts he'll ever get the job he almost had, but he is glad the court ruling may set a precedent for the many other veterans continually seeking civilian employment after their military careers end. He has a job now, but it's a temporary position, he said.

Schirripa had been offered a job in the UWM purchasing department in 2009, on the condition that he pass a criminal background check and confirm his veteran status. When he told UWM that he left after a special court martial, they told him he no longer qualified for the extra 10 points he'd been awarded as a veteran and the job offer was revoked.

He appealed, and the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, a circuit judge and now the Court of Appeals, in a ruling released Thursday, all agreed that because he served at least four years under honorable conditions, he qualified, no matter that his formal discharge was less than honorable.

In an interview, Schirripa explained his detachment from the Navy. He had enlisted in 1981 for four years. His duty was extended by the government for two more years. While in the Navy, he reached the rank of petty officer second class.

During his extended duty, he said, he had weekend liberty while his ship was in dock. He overslept, panicked because he knew he should be back at his post, and then stayed away even longer before returning.

"I feel bad about what I did, and I don't blame the Navy," Schirripa said. "I made a mistake, but it wasn't something that would be a crime in civilian life. I didn't hurt anyone."

He said when UWM told him he could appeal its decision to rescind the job offer, he figured it would mean talking to some manager in human resources where he could explain. But it turned out to be through the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, and he said everyone told him the facts didn't really matter because the issue was a legal one -- whether the nature of his discharge prevented the preference.

He handled the appeal himself, without an attorney. After the WERC hearing, the Board of Regents became the appellant against the commission, and he wasn't even a party, which is why he was referred to in subsequent court proceeding by his initials.

"Everyone told me this would be the highest level of confidentiality," he said. But his name remains in the WERC records online.

Schirripa said he thinks the timing of his trouble -- in the mid-1980s when the federal government was trying to downsize the military -- probably was a factor in the Navy deciding to treat his offense the way it did, instead of through a non-judicial discipline. He thinks the same dynamic will likely affect many current military members in the near future.

That's why he thinks the ruling in his case will be relevant and helpful.

"Lots of these new guys will have made mistakes under a lot more pressure than I faced," he said.

Indeed, after a long period of war, more American soldiers are being discharged for misconduct -- sometimes relatively minor -- than at any time in recent years, according to a new investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette.

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