Vet alleges supervisors at CBP IA ignored his disability: “He Just needed an ounce of compassion” -- Pt. 1

After returning to civilian life in 1991 to earn his college degree at Saint Leo College, along with a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the College of William and Mary, Richardson continued to gravitate toward security and intelligence work, the same type of work that had piqued his interest early in his career. It was no surprise, then, that Richardson’s first civilian job at the National Center for State Courts was an outgrowth of his graduate work or that he soon took a position as auditor for the U.S. Postal Service where he was tasked with investigating employee abuses.

Fast forward to 2010. Now a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, Richardson had served in a wide variety of intelligence and security duties around the world including Tel Aviv, Jordan, and Bahrain. Along the way he moved up the ranks receiving two Joint Service Commendation Medals as well as the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

One award for Richard’s heroism while serving his country reads in part: “By his quick and selfless response to an evolving terrorist act, the threat to U.S. Navy Personnel and Property was mitigated…”

After a total of almost three decades of military service, Richardson had decided it was time to make the move back to a nine-to-five job stateside. He had accepted a federal job in Washington, D.C. at CBP IA in their Operation and Field Testing Division. While he was at the civil service pay scale of a GS-14, like many others he retained his military rank as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve. Mr. Richardson was, in fact, up for promotion to Commander.

While he was interviewed in his home outside Washington, Richardson displayed several different reference letters in support of this promotion including one letter signed by Admiral John England (Retired), former Secretary of the Navy. Writes the 72nd and 73rd Secretary of the Navy regarding Richardson: “John has always been highly dedicated to mission success and he is highly admired and respected by his peers and all who know him.”

While employed in CBP IA, Richardson had been deployed with his reserve naval unit to Saudi Arabia in 2007 where he conducted, he says, “overt collection activities.”. With his civilian job in Washington with CBP IA awaiting his return, he also served honorably in Afghanistan from September 2009 to September 2010, and then yet again in West Africa until 2011.

Despite his previous decades of service in the military, Richardson says that after the events of 9/11, he found it very difficult not to volunteer to serve his country.

Between deployments Richardson worked in CBP IA headquartered in Washington, D.C., and was eventually moved into the Integrity Programs Division.

Says Roger Palmisano — who served in the Air Force and was also employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Air Marshal Service, and CBP — about Richardson: “John was a military guy like me. He was used to following the rules by the book. That’s what you learn in the military.” But when Richardson returned from his last deployment in West Africa, Palmisano, who now works for a private security firm, saw at once that Richardson was in intense back pain. “I know the guy and I’ve seen his paperwork (about his medical disability),” said Palmisano from behind a conference room table.

Richardson says that in 2010 he could not resist serving his country one last time. This last deployment was to be based in Djibouti, Africa, and Richardson was to work as an Intelligence Officer with the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa at Camp Lemmonier. Although more than twenty years older than the majority of those going through three weeks of required training before being deployed, Richardson, who prided himself on always being in peak physical condition, sailed through the training at McCrady Training Center in Columbia, South Carolina.

When he picked up his body armor one day during training, however, Richardson “…felt a pop” in his back. There was no pain associated with it, he says. Six months later, while on deployment in Africa, he says that, “…my right leg went numb.”

“He was in great pain when he returned”, says Marsha McKinney, a Senior Operations Analyst at CBP IA from 2006 to 2013. Two cubicles away from Richardson, she saw him on a regular basis and, “he always seemed to be in pain.” As she passed by his cubicle on a daily basis, she frequently saw him lying on his cubicle floor in a futile effort to seek relief from his back pain aggravated by his desk job.

She says that, “He was always trying to stand up wherever he was working…” in order to seek some relief from the back pain from which he suffered at his desk job. McKinney, however, recognized “… he (Richardson) was losing the battle.”

“I know what pain is,” she told me in a phone interview from her home in Houston, Texas. “I could see he (Richardson) was suffering.”

McKinney, an African-American with a long career as a federal employee, says that at that time Richardson was “…at their (his superiors’) mercy. Richardson, according to McKinney, “… needed an ounce of compassion.”

As for Richardson’s superiors at CBP IA, McKinney believes as a religious woman that, “there is a Higher Authority they will answer to.”

“This job is sedentary”, she says by way of explanation of the nature of intelligence work at CBP IA, in which one is expected to spend the majority of time working at the cubicle computer. At the same time, she says, you must use your intellectual capabilities and experience in investigations because your work, according to McKinney, can directly impacts peoples’ lives. “You are sitting at your desk all day”, she says.

In fact, Richardson was attempting to do the work he was assigned, but simply could not tolerate sitting in his standard issue chair at his standard issue desk because of his back pain. “Look,” she says, “they just didn’t care.”

Richardson alleges he notified his supervisors at CBP IA immediately after he received the first military doctor’s report identifying his multiple medical issues. He asserts that he requested a non-sedentary job position at CBP IA to avoid his intense back pain. He says that if he had been assigned a job requiring walking around and standing, a job similar to one he had at one time successfully held at CBP IA, then he could have performed the job with far less pain to this back. This previous job was as head of the security force at one of Washington’s large office buildings, a job for which Richardson says he was praised in his annual performance evaluation. As a part of this same job, Richardson was constantly walking around the interior and exterior of the building.

A “by-the-book” military officer, Richardson said in a long interview that he was not at all worried when he first showed up for work at CBP IA after returning from Africa. He was not worried because he had meticulously copied all of his supervisors about his new medical condition.

However, the first day back at work at CBP IA after being injured, Richardson claims he was shocked to discover that not only had his supervisors at CBP IA made no accommodations to his documented disability, but they also said they had received no record of his new medical condition from the Navy or from him.

The military medical report for Richardson includes lumbar neuritis, a disease of the lumbar nerves. This lumbar neuritis is, he alleges, the major cause of his back pain and suffering. Richardson was told in this same military medical report that he also has osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints, in his right and left knees. The medical report also cites a similar condition in his right and left shoulders.

Doctors also have told Richardson that each of these diagnosed medical conditions would require surgery.

As yet Richardson alleges he has received minimal treatment for these chronic conditions, even though he spent a year in recovery while in a Navy Program called the Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL). While awaiting surgery in the near future, Richardson says his back pain has not abated but has worsened.

This disabled returning veteran to a held position at a federal agency, the CBP IA, did not know that he was about to enter a confounding bureaucratic maze. This includes not only the disinterested officials at the CBP IA, but also officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the Navy, and other programs the likes of which Richardson could never have envisioned in his wildest dreams and for which he was not prepared.

After a distinguished military career, Richardson’s final landing stateside was not, as has been in recent headlines, about returning home to dysfunctional medical services under the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. In contrast, Richardson’s story involves CBP IA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Navy. Virtually no one within these federal agencies mentioned, or the military, seems at all interested in Richardson’s case.    

One might argue that Richardson should have seen it coming. But the greater truth seems to be that, if and when all of Richardson’s allegations are affirmed, he appears to have become totally set adrift in the complexities of the federal employment procedures and policies process. His problems only began when his CBP IA supervisors were unwilling, for whatever reason, to accommodate the disability of their employee who not only had proved himself at CBP IA, but had a distinguished military career.

In the words of one of Richardson’s co-workers at CBP IA, it seems as if no one in power in this bureaucratic circus has ever demonstrated toward Richardson “…an ounce of compassion.”

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author o f The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at