Last June, Steve Sims, 41, was shipped home from Iraq by his then-employer contractor KBR supposedly because he has diabetes. You might think he'd feel lucky. Be he actually liked his job, and wanted to stay. He believes his supervisor pulled the "diabetes card" for political reasons, angling to get rid of an unwanted software development team.
"I never let diabetes slow me down, so I really have an issue when somebody says you can't do something. After 32 years (dx at age 9), I have no complications, I'm actively staying healthy, and I'm contributing to the community — so why don't I get the same rights as everybody else?" he laments.
All of this came out when Steve emailed me last week, saying he'd seen the media coverage of the US soldier on patrol who wears an insulin pump...!
Here's how he tells his story:
"In May of 2005 I accepted a position in Iraq as a contractor. I fulfilled all the medical requirements and was given the green light by the Department of Defense. After packing six months worth of medical supplies and three days of travel I arrived at the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq.
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"I spent six months working on this software deployment project and then hired on with KBR as a contractor. After three months, I traveled to Camp Lemonier in Dujbouti, Africa for a KBR project. This is when my problem started. While I was gone, KBR searched my room in Iraq (they can do random searches whenever they like) and found my medications. They told me that KBR and the Army did not want me back in Iraq. I fought with them on this decision with no success and learned later it was a personal choice by one supervisor."
Steve (3rd from right) with Iraqi colleagues/friends
Over the phone, Steve explained a few more key details. Apparently, KBR (backed by Army officials) offered for him to continue his project in Africa, even while they claimed his diabetes made him unsuitable for living and working in Iraq (?)
He strongly believes that his ousting had to little to do with his disease, but a lot to do with the conflict that Baghdad's Camp Victory supervisor was having with KBR Corporate decision-makers in Houston. Steve's team had essentially hijacked a software implementation that the military LOGCAP program preferred to handle themselves. Indeed, the small KBR team fell apart shortly after Steve left.
So why did he wait so long to speak out?
Well, Steve's a single father of two teenage boys living in Salmon, Idaho. He was let go completely by KBR a few months after his return home, and soon found himself commuting to the East Coast to work for Pfizer. "I bit my lip. I just didn't have the energy to take this on... but now looking back on it, this whole thing was so wrong," he says. "I was working 100 hours a week in Iraq, and I'm probably in the best health of my life. So there's no way it was a performance issue."
Steve, btw, was an early customer of the first commercially available insulin pump, the AutoSyringe, aka the "Big Blue Brick."
"I have not let diabetes keep me from enjoying life. If there is one thing that I cannot accept it is discrimination!" he says.
So Says the ADA
My immediate reaction was to contact the ADA's Legal Advocacy Fund, and put them in touch with Steve, of course. This morning I had a long talk with John Griffin, chair of the ADA legal advocacy subcommittee, who practices law in Victoria, Texas. Here's what he had to say:
It definitely sounds like KBR broke the law, if diabetes was truly not an impediment. "Any ulterior motive for the firing is irrelevant -- the motive we attack is firing someone for diabetes when diabetes is not interfering with the person's ability to their job. He should be evaluated on merit of the work he's doing."
"KBR might say they were 'afraid,' but that's ludicrous. With the technology we have today -- the medications, cooling containers, and supplies -- there isn't really anyplace in this world somebody couldn't go for six months to a year or more and take good care of their diabetes."
HOWEVER, it may be too late for Steve to take legal action, because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is required to prove that cases like these have been initiated within 180 days of being fired...
"If anybody else has this happen, I'd encourage them to march straight into the EEOC office and have this thing eradicated. That's the whole purpose of the (Americans with Disabilities Act) law," Mr. Griffin says.
"The ADA Legal Advocacy group has a call center at 1-800-DIABETES for cases like this. No other health organization has a 'war room' like this to help you get a lawyer, get an endocrinologist on board, get legal counsel... And there is no charge. We want people with diabetes to know that this resource is there for them."
Personally, I'm still holding out hope that they can do something for Steve, who was tossed out simply because of a condition he didn't choose to have -- but he did choose to manage well. "Sounds like he had enough supplies to last even if they'd taken him as a prisoner over there," Griffin says.