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thedrifter
05-21-08, 08:40 AM
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
After Marine son is wounded, woman lobbies to expand family leave act

By Emily Brown ,Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Thursday, May 22, 2008

PITTSBURGH — Marcia Chmill was able to bring her son John, a corporal in the Marine Reserves, home to Pittsburgh after he had spent a month at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

He was alive. She was so happy, she never mourned the loss of her son’s left eye or dwelled on the fact that two-thirds of his left hand was gone. His physical therapy was going well. John was making progress after several surgeries. A halo stabilized his shattered right leg.

But then came her own setback.

Her employer, the University of Pittsburgh, denied her coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act and said if she took any more time off to help her son, her job would be terminated. Her three-year battle was just beginning.

"How am I going to take care of my son?" Chmill asked. "In my heart I knew a mother can get her son to heal better [than a stranger] by tending to him."

She needed a lawyer to say her rights had been denied, but she could never get that confirmation. So she started writing letters and e-mails: one to the Department of Labor, one to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, one to the Chief of Naval Operations, one to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The list goes on, from congressmen and senators right up to the president.

Then she went to work taking care of her son.

John Chmill was bedridden and needed his mom to change the bandages on his hand, seal a plastic bag around his knee halo before he took a bath, put antibiotic drops in his eye socket and use a bone growth stimulator on his leg. He was on seven medications and needed transportation to regular doctor appointments.

The injuries were a result of a suicide bomb. His Marine Reserve truck company was activated in 2004 for a second tour, and he was attached to an Army brigade in Ramadi, Iraq, driving armored trucks with equipment or transporting soldiers on their missions.

While carrying about 20 soldiers in a seven-ton armored truck in November 2004, an Iraqi police car strapped with a bomb rammed into his driver’s side door. Amazingly, no one was killed. Chmill took the brunt of the hit, losing his left eye (which is now replaced by an acrylic eye) and all but the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. His right leg was shattered.

It was important for him to have his mother at his bedside in Bethesda and back in Pittsburgh, he said. He spent most of the time knocked out on a handful of medications.

"I have no complaints about the care I got, but she was there to make sure I got the care that I needed," he said.

While there were rights granted to parents of severely injured adult children, Chmill wanted to see an amendment to the Family and Medical Leave Act with a clear statement about families of servicemembers wounded while deployed, so no one would go through the fight she did with employers.

The experience "led me on a mission to get involved, and I just wouldn’t give up," she said.

Chmill got the bureaucratic runaround, she said, until she took her case to her local representative, Congressman Mike Doyle, D-Pa., in May 2005.

"The Department of Labor was interpreting [the FMLA] in such a narrow fashion; I think it was going against congressional intent," Doyle said.

Chmill wasn’t alone, Doyle learned. Members of Congress were already working to fix this problem based on cases of others across the country denied the benefits of FMLA. Eventually the issue was inserted into the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill.

But it was Chmill’s perseverance that brought this issue to his attention. Though Doyle didn’t sponsor the bill, he became a strong supporter.

"If we are going to send [troops] over there, we have to take care of them when they come home and their families, too," Doyle said.

In January, President Bush signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which, among other things, amends the Family and Medical Leave Act to permit a next of kin to take up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a member of the active-duty armed forces, National Guard or Reserve who is undergoing treatment for a serious illness or injury.

The amendment came too late for Chmill. She used all of her sick leave and personal days and was eventually granted some administrative leave.

"She got her problem solved personally, but she didn’t just stop there," Doyle said.

Said John Chmill: "Once it’s in there with the military stipulation, it’s a lot harder for employers to abuse."

Ellie