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Military scams create problems for real service members Print

January 7, 2007

BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

Lawrence Masa, the Orland paramedic accused of pretending to be an Army reservist, was apparently the type who liked to talk about his military exploits -- up to a point.

"Gentlemen, duty calls again," Masa gravely told fellow members of a DuPage County interjurisdictional SWAT team before what authorities now say was one of his phony "deployments."

When they asked him what unit he was in or what he would be doing, though, Masa would tell them he couldn't say, that it was all top-secret stuff. So convincing was his swagger -- and his skills as a tactical emergency medical technician -- that they believed him.

The "orders" he submitted to the Orland Fire Protection District to justify staying on the payroll during his absence also played on the notion he was involved in something hush-hush.

Carrying a heading that said it was issued by the Department of Defense Special Operations Command, one set of papers indicated "Major" Masa was assigned to: "HQ, Anti-Terrorism Assistance, Crisis Response Team, Cell-4." Lots of official-looking coding lent credence to the alleged ruse.

'It's like you never left'
Masa was so well-respected that fire department officials never bothered to confirm the veracity of his documents -- until they received a tip just before Christmas that he wasn't a reservist.

In fairly short order, it was determined the deployment orders were fake and that Masa was actually a well-compensated employee of a private security firm.

While some of his security work may indeed have taken Masa overseas to the same places as American military personnel (I'm told he sent back convincing pictures), that didn't entitle him to continue being paid by Orland taxpayers while he was gone. The undeserved windfall landed him in jail last week on theft and official misconduct charges.

Late Friday, Lemont fire officials acknowledged that a member of their department, Steve Slawinski, who also happens to be a buddy of Masa, had been arrested for carrying out a similar scheme.

The second arrest increases the risk that soldiers legitimately taking a leave will be subjected to suspicion and mistrust.

While it's certainly possible there are even more frauds out there, the real problem is on the flip side of the coin: with real soldiers who face real hardships and sometimes real problems with their employers when they are called to active duty.

Often, it's just a matter of employers not knowing the law and understanding their responsibilities, but sometimes there's also a lack of appreciation for the sacrifices involved.

I spoke Friday with two fellows who do a lot of work educating employers and running interference for servicemen: James Capparelli from the Illinois Attorney General's Veterans Rights Bureau and Eric Schuller, senior policy adviser in the lieutenant governor's office.

Even though federal and state law clearly requires employers to retain the job of any guardsman or reservist called to active duty -- and to return them to the same or an equivalent position when they return -- some employers continue to balk at the inconveniences this can create, they tell me.

"With the war dragging on like this, these are the kinds of issues we've had to face time and time again," Capparelli said.

Capparelli gave me an example that helps illustrate the rub: A soldier who held a job as a mechanic before getting called up returned from Iraq. While he was gone, the employer needed to hire another mechanic. The employer thought the new guy did better work. On top of that, the new guy has a wife and kids while the returning reservist is single. The employer wanted to stick with the new guy. Capparelli eventually convinced him the law requires him to hire back the reservist.

"People have a hard time with that," he said.

Returning service members are also entitled to any pay increases others received in their absence as well as an equal shot at any promotions.

"It's like you never left," Schuller said.

Military orders can be checked
In Illinois, state and municipal employees are entitled to receive the difference between their military pay and their civilian salary. The Orland fire department goes beyond the state requirement and continues to pay full salary.

While private employers don't have to continue to pay their reservists, some do. Sears, Home Depot and Wal-Mart are among the companies that go the extra mile for their military members, Schuller said.

Schuller said employers needn't be shy about checking up on an employee's military orders.

"If they're in doubt, there's nothing wrong with them picking up the phone and verifying it. Creditors do it all the time," he said.

Both men are wary of the damage Masa may have caused.

"It's hard enough you got to fight for these guys as it is, and then you have somebody like this trying to take advantage," Capparelli said. "He's nothing better than a war profiteer." 

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