Shipped Home from Iraq: Diabetes Discrimination?

Last June, Steve Sims, 41, was shipped home from Iraq by his then-employer contractor KBR supposedly because he has diabetes. You might think he’d feel lucky. Be he actually liked his job, and wanted to stay. He believes his supervisor pulled the “diabetes card” for political reasons, angling to get rid of an unwanted software development team.

“I never let diabetes slow me down, so I really have an issue when somebody says you can’t do something. After 32 years (dx at age 9), I have no complications, I’m actively staying healthy, and I’m contributing to the community – so why don’t I get the same rights as everybody else?” he laments.

All of this came out when Steve emailed me last week, saying he’d seen the media coverage of the US soldier on patrol who wears an insulin pump…!

Here’s how he tells his story:

“In May of 2005 I accepted a position in Iraq as a contractor. I fulfilled all the medical requirements and was given the green light by the Department of Defense. After packing six months worth of medical supplies and three days of travel I arrived at the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq.

“I spent six months working on this software deployment project and then hired on with KBR as a contractor. After three months, I traveled to Camp Lemonier in Dujbouti, Africa for a KBR project. This is when my problem started. While I was gone, KBR searched my room in Iraq (they can do random searches whenever they like) and found my medications. They told me that KBR and the Army did not want me back in Iraq. I fought with them on this decision with no success and learned later it was a personal choice by one supervisor.”

Steve_sims_in_iraq

Steve (3rd from right) with Iraqi colleagues/friends

Over the phone, Steve explained a few more key details. Apparently, KBR (backed by Army officials) offered for him to continue his project in Africa, even while they claimed his diabetes made him unsuitable for living and working in Iraq (?)

He strongly believes that his ousting had to little to do with his disease, but a lot to do with the conflict that Baghdad’s Camp Victory supervisor was having with KBR Corporate decision-makers in Houston. Steve’s team had essentially hijacked a software implementation that the military LOGCAP program preferred to handle themselves. Indeed, the small KBR team fell apart shortly after Steve left.

So why did he wait so long to speak out?

Well, Steve’s a single father of two teenage boys living in Salmon, Idaho. He was let go completely by KBR a few months after his return home, and soon found himself commuting to the East Coast to work for Pfizer. “I bit my lip. I just didn’t have the energy to take this on… but now looking back on it, this whole thing was so wrong,” he says. “I was working 100 hours a week in Iraq, and I’m probably in the best health of my life. So there’s no way it was a performance issue.”

Steve, btw, was an early customer of the first commercially available insulin pump, the AutoSyringe, aka the “Big Blue Brick.”

“I have not let diabetes keep me from enjoying life. If there is one thing that I cannot accept it is discrimination!” he says.


So Says the ADA

My immediate reaction was to contact the ADA’s Legal Advocacy Fund, and put them in touch with Steve, of course. This morning I had a long talk with John Griffin, chair of the ADA legal advocacy subcommittee, who practices law in Victoria, Texas. Here’s what he had to say:

It definitely sounds like KBR broke the law, if diabetes was truly not an impediment. “Any ulterior motive for the firing is irrelevant — the motive we attack is firing someone for diabetes when diabetes is not interfering with the person’s ability to their job. He should be evaluated on merit of the work he’sNo_discrimination doing.”

“KBR might say they were ‘afraid,’ but that’s ludicrous. With the technology we have today — the medications, cooling containers, and supplies — there isn’t really anyplace in this world somebody couldn’t go for six months to a year or more and take good care of their diabetes.”

HOWEVER, it may be too late for Steve to take legal action, because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is required to prove that cases like these have been initiated within 180 days of being fired…

“If anybody else has this happen, I’d encourage them to march straight into the EEOC office and have this thing eradicated. That’s the whole purpose of the (Americans with Disabilities Act) law,” Mr. Griffin says.

“The ADA Legal Advocacy group has a call center at 1-800-DIABETES for cases like this. No other health organization has a ‘war room’ like this to help you get a lawyer, get an endocrinologist on board, get legal counsel… And there is no charge. We want people with diabetes to know that this resource is there for them.”

Personally, I’m still holding out hope that they can do something for Steve, who was tossed out simply because of a condition he didn’t choose to have — but he did choose to manage well. “Sounds like he had enough supplies to last even if they’d taken him as a prisoner over there,” Griffin says.

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11 Responses

  1. Bernard Farrell
    Bernard Farrell September 7, 2007 at 1:21 pm | | Reply

    Not a nice story. Why don’t we put a little pressure on KBR. I’m sure they won’t enjoy the scrutiny.

    Is it worth contacting our representatives about this? Because it sounds as if KBR is getting some of our dollars. And if they’re not acting within the law, then why are we employing them?

  2. Scott
    Scott September 7, 2007 at 2:11 pm | | Reply

    Actually, this has been an ongoing issue that the ADA has been trying to resolve, but the issue has been tied up in out do-nothing Congress. The fact is that the Americans with Disabilities Act has been undermined by several Supreme Court rulings in recent years that actually enable employers to discriminate against people with diabetes because it is not specifically spelled out in the law as a disability. Its really shameful when the courts undermine the law that was meant to end employment discrimination, but then again, the court has changed since Alito was put in charge, and this is the result.

  3. Manny Hernandez
    Manny Hernandez September 8, 2007 at 7:02 am | | Reply

    Scott make s a very good point in terms of diabetes not being a disability that would protect people with diabetes from situations like this one.

    I started a discussion about this on TuDiabetes:
    http://tudiabetes.com/forum/topic/show?id=583967%3ATopic%3A38707

  4. Melissa
    Melissa September 10, 2007 at 3:27 am | | Reply

    Scott is such an inspiration to persevere, and stand up for himself. It is a shame he had to be dismissed.

  5. joanna
    joanna September 10, 2007 at 5:42 am | | Reply

    After 31 years with T1 and yes I was one of those customers on the Auto Syringe but mine was a black brick lol I have also experinced discrimmanation because of having T1 diabetes. In fact a few years ago I was working for a hospital and you would think of all places they would understand NOT ! The department I was working in would not let me test my blood sugar or treat a low. I was harassed (spelling) all the time because of my diabetes. Sad to say discrimination is still out there : (

  6. Bev Sklar
    Bev Sklar September 10, 2007 at 5:35 pm | | Reply

    Amy,

    What a story. Good for you speaking directly with Griffin. It’s positive that he felt Steve would have had a case, even though the motive to fire is allegedly not diabetes. I’d be curious to see what Griffin has to say about the lower courts’ rulings on those fired for diabetes, and how the current legal climate is not favorable for discrimination litigation by people with diabetes. Especially someone like Steve with excellent control.

    Scott is on target re: the climate in the courts. Diabetes is not considered a disability. I wrote a post this past July regarding the proposed Americans with Disabilities Act Restoration Act. This bill has NOT been signed into law. But it needs to be, and perhaps with the bipartisan nature of the bill, it will be.

    http://www.thediabetesblog.com/2007/07/29/americans-with-disabilities-act-restoration-act-introduced/

  7. PrintCrafter
    PrintCrafter September 11, 2007 at 8:39 am | | Reply

    Amy–

    Well here is where we get into the quick sand, isn’t it? Yeah, I know, I know…. a T-1 can do anything anyone else can do, or so the mantra goes. Problem is, I don’t really believe in my heart that it is true. There is a core group of super-athlete T-1s out there who climb Everest and win bike races (Go Team Type-1!!). But the sad truth is that most of us are in poor shape.

    Taking myself for an example, I’m not worth a shit when a hypo hits. And they do hit, even with all my fancy CGM equipment and my alleged super-bright mind. Honestly, I don’t think I should be a Cop. What if a hypo hit during a drug raid? Some one might get hurt or killed. Maybe my partner, maybe me.

    I have a Commercial Pilot’s License that I can no longer use. Yeah, sucks, but I really don’t want the guy flying the plane I’m a passenger in going hypo on take-off either.

    On the other hand, here in New Mexico, if you are foolish enough to admit to DMV that you are D-folk you can only have a driver’s license for one year and you need a special form from your doctor every year to re-apply. That’s madness and discrimination against an entire category of humans. I can see some reasonable restrictions if you actually had an accident. Or maybe even for us insulin users. But to make Type-2s on Metformin go through this every year????

    But that’s only one side of this story, isn’t it? The D really had nothing to do with this at all, and maybe that’s even more frightening. Maybe what should really scare all of us to death is the fact that our conditions can be used capriciously to be rid of us should we become annoying for other reasons.

    I guess we, as a tribe, need to figure out some sort of balance. We need to realize, and we must make the world understand, that all of us must live within our limits but that those limits should not be imposed externally. Case by case is messy. I’d think that as a general rule if your job involves a gun…. but as we’ve seen there is this crazy nutcase who wants to fight in Iraq with his insulin pump. I guess if his commander and his comrades are comfortable with it…..

    Bottom line, from my own experience, I think a few closed doors are simply part of life. That’s the balance part. The other side of the coin is rigorously defending ourselves and our kin from abuses like this one you wrote about.

    Do you think it is possible to accept some limits but rigorously defend against any trespass beyond that point?

  8. Mark Ford
    Mark Ford August 6, 2008 at 4:22 pm | | Reply

    Sieve,
    I am very interested in going overseas to work. The economic gain is the reason. I do not know who to contact. I have type 2 diabetes. Who and where was your physical performed? Please email me information concerning this matter. Also do you work for an verseas contractor presemtly?

  9. Gary Hall
    Gary Hall August 13, 2008 at 10:07 am | | Reply

    I was medically discharged from the Army in 1984 for diabetes, and denied a civil service position as a Public Affairs Officer in Afghanistan in 1984 due to being diabetic – the Army doctor at Landsthul said that I had no way to keep insulin refrigerated in-country. Because of not getting this job, my family and I were required to leave my employment working for the Army in Germany. Emloyment prejudice against diabeticcs exists, and our government offices are riddled with supervisors who try to “get around” the ADA. If they can’t get around it, they just ignore it.

  10. Kevin Redmond
    Kevin Redmond October 25, 2008 at 1:04 pm | | Reply

    I am a Civilian contractor currently in the Army CRC course at Ft. Benning, Georgia for deployment to Baghdad, Iraq this week. I was in the CRC course last week and was stamped “non-deployable” due to being a Diabetic. Before the end of the course, I was sent home due to my name being spelled wrong in the CVS database for my military ID card. I just started this week’s course today and am attempting to obtain a waiver to resolve the Diabetic “NO-Go” issue.

    I find this article very interesting, providing references to agencies that appear to be supportive in this type of discrimination.

    I have been using a Medtronic Mini-Med insulin pump for the past decade and the Continuous Glucose Monitor since introduced. I am prior US Army Special Forces Veteran, making me a strong candidate for this type of contractor assignments. I am in excellent shape still. I see many of the Contractors here that can barely make it up the hill and are allowed to be deployed. The rule being applied here is that no injectable medication users are allowed to be deployed, not just Diabetics.

    I will pursue the waiver process this week and keep this site posted on my results.

  11. Kevin James
    Kevin James September 6, 2009 at 3:17 pm | | Reply

    Did you take your KBR physcial before you knew that you had diabetes, or did you know and you still passed your physical?

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