Like many of the nearly 3 million American servicemen and women who served since 2001 in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, I returned to civilian life to work as a security officer, for low pay, no benefits and no way to fix what was wrong at my company.  I worked hard to make my current employer – a federal contractor – into the kind of company worthy of employing a veteran.  That’s why I’m disappointed Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro A great military requires greater spending than Trump has proposed Cheney: Russian election interference could be ‘act of war’ MORE and the Republicans are using the National Defense Authorization Act currently before Congress to gut President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order that would hold federal contractors accountable for their violations of workers’ rights. 

I joined the Air Force in 1997 after a year of studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. I was a weapons specialist, stationed all over the country. My first deployment was during Operation Restore Hope and the Bosnia and Herzegovina campaign. I taught at Barksdale, La., at the pilot weapons training school where I trained pilots on the weapons systems and weapons for the B-52 bombers. After that, I was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., where I was trained on F-16 weapons and weapons systems prior to being sent to the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. And after 9/11 I was deployed to the Indian Ocean island Diego Garcia, with the 96th Bomb Squadron as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and then the War on Terror where we conducted air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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After I was honorably discharged in 2005, I was hired by a security firm where the pay was extremely low. A lot of veterans were coming home then, and it was an insult for a firm to tell us we were worth only $10 an hour after we had been trained by the U.S. military as security specialists and were considered skilled enough to protect our country.

Now I work for a federal contractor and many of my coworkers are veterans or former law enforcement.  You would think that working under a federal contract would mean the government provides oversight and makes sure working conditions are fair, but that just wasn’t the case. When I started, many had been working here for ten years or more, but were still at the same pay level as when they started.  Security work can be risky, yet we had no life insurance and the health insurance was extremely expensive and unaffordable for most of us.

Together we organized this workplace and changed working conditions for ourselves, but what about the thousands of workers who are not protected by a union?

It isn’t right that companies can receive billions of dollars from the government, violate their employees’ workplace rights, and continue to win big federal contracts.  Supporting our troops means taking care of them when they come back, and having a good job with fair wages and a safe workplace here at home.  Why can they get away with disobeying the laws I and so many others have fought so hard to defend?  I would be in jail right now if I broke the law like some of these big federal contractors repeatedly do.

I’m proud of my service. I’m proud of my country.  I work hard to take care of my family. I’m a single father of two young men, 17 and 15 years old, who are now looking at colleges.  I help support my mother who is partially disabled and diabetic, and cannot survive on her Social Security benefits without my assistance. And the people I work with are no different than me.  Veterans like me face discrimination, wage theft, injuries, or even death on the job.

That’s why it’s time to move forward with the president’s Executive Order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.  It will help identify companies with serious labor law violations and encourage them to clean up their acts before they can receive any future contracts. Sen. McCain: please pass an NDAA that honors veterans, and drop language that would give defense contractors a free pass to violate their employees’ rights.  The federal government should ensure workers employed on its contracts have fair pay and safe workplaces. As veterans, it’s what we fought for.

Jeremy Birchwood, single father, veteran, security officer, New York, N.Y.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.