For nine months, Anthony Gazvoda had the grittiest of gritty jobs: drawing out the enemy in Afghanistan.
He was in 34 firefights, shot at hundreds of times, and “blown up once” in an IED attack.
The army sergeant survived the bloodbath, but is now engaged in warfare of a different kind: He’s suing the Department of Homeland Security over a job assignment in Texas, saying the dry, hot state reminds him too much of Afghanistan, and it’s too painful to work there.
In a classic David versus Goliath tale, a federal judge today sided with the war veteran from Michigan, concluding that Homeland Security cannot immediately force him to report back to his post in Laredo, Texas, where he briefly worked until he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. The judge issued a temporary injunction, giving both sides 30 days to see if there is a suitable job for Gazvoda in Michigan.
“All I want is to be able to continue serving my country,” said Gazvoda, 31, of Grayling, who remains active in the Michigan National Guard. “I just can’t do it in a place that constantly reminds me of where I was repeatedly shot at. I’m sorry about that – I really am – but I just can’t be there.”
Gazvoda, who has worked as a border patrol agent since his discharge from the Army because of PTSD, now has to convince the federal government that there is a suitable job for him elsewhere. He has requested a job on the Canadian border in Sault Ste. Marie or Port Huron, though his lawyers say the federal government is fighting him on that request.
“This young man has done everything his country has asked him to do. He went to war. He risked his life. … Now, he is asking for the most basic of accommodations,” said Gazvoda’s attorney, Jason Turkish, noting his client doesn’t want disability benefits or money. “He has said, ‘I just want to continue to serve.’ It’s incredible. There’s nothing more noble. And for the government to challenge that — it’s just laughable.”
The U.S. Attorneys office in Detroit, which is defending the federal government in the lawsuit, declined comment, citing policy not to comment on pending litigation.
In court documents, government attorneys have argued that Gazvoda has not exhausted his administrative remedies and that his request to avoid working along the the southern border in Texas is discriminatory because — they claim — he is uncomfortable working around non-Caucasians who don’t speak English. The government argues that Gazvoda’s request to be transferred elsewhere is not reasonable, and that it “poses an undue hardship” on the post in Texas because there is a significant staffing shortage there.
The government sought to have the case dismissed.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington denied that request, concluding that Gazvoda had presented enough evidence from doctors to proceed with his lawsuit. He noted that “there is troubling evidence” that Gazvoda is “made uncomfortable by non-Caucasians that speak languages other than English.”
“But, at this stage, Gazvoda has provided sufficient evidence … supported by treating doctors’ professional opinions, to demonstrate that his mental condition is caused by the similarities between Laredo and his duty station in Afghanistan,” Ludington wrote. “These include the hot summers, the arid desert climate and dense urban areas.”
Ludington also noted that it was doctors who concluded that “the presence of dark-skinned individuals (who) spoke a foreign language aroused painful and unpleasant memories from when Gazvoda was deployed.”
The discrimination claims have outraged Gazvoda’s lawyers, who stress it was government doctors — not their client — who recommended against placing Gazvoda back in an environment with non-English speaking individuals.
“When he was in Afghanistan moving 5 miles an hour, his job was to listen for non-English speakers,” Turkish said. “Now he’s in Texas, around non-English speaking people. It’s hot, dry, and he’s an armed border patrol agent. … It’s too similar.”
According to court documents and interviews with attorneys, here is what led to the lawsuit.
In 2009, Gazvoda served a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, where he worked as a road clearance specialist. His job was to go ahead of everyone else during missions, draw out the enemy and engage them in gunfights. He was in 34 firefights and earned an Army Commendation Medal with Valor for rescuing a soldier from a bombed-out Humvee, while under enemy fire.
After finishing his tour of duty, he returned to the U.S. and began working as a border patrol agent. He trained in New Mexico and in 2011 was stationed at a post in Laredo, Texas.
After a few months in Texas, Gazvoda began having panic attacks and sleep issues. He visited the VA there but to no avail. He took an unpaid administrative leave and moved to Michigan, where government doctors would eventually diagnose him with PTSD and recommend he not be stationed in Texas. They found a number of similarities between Texas and Afghanistan: Both were hot, dry and heavily populated. Both also had non-English speaking residents, which doctors concluded was another trigger.
In January of 2015, Gazvoda asked to be reinstated, which is what triggered the lawsuit. He requested a “compassionate transfer.” He wanted a position in Sault Ste. Marie to be near his doctors. Last November, Homeland Security denied his request and warned he would be considered AWOL and could be disciplined or fired if he didn’t report to Texas. They gave him three days to show up.
Gazdova never showed. He got a lawyer.
Gazvoda sued Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and R. Gil Kerlikowske, head of of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, claiming they failed to accommodate his disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
“This is not how you treat a decorated war veteran,” said Turkish, arguing the government’s own doctors have concluded Gazvoda shouldn’t be in Texas. “He is capable of being a border patrol agent. We just need to get him out of a place that reminds him of where he was shot at 34 times.”
That’s not his opinion, Turkish said, stressing: “Every single medical opinion, they all agreed. He shouldn’t be down there.”