The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940, as well as its earlier and later enactments, were management-neutral and but highly protective of the overall job performance of those who served the nation. At least, this is the perspective from within the military organization.
Though the Act is designated as that of 1940, the history of this blanket protection for military personnel against all forms of civil action that might be brought against them and their families originated in the Civil War of the 1860s. As it became clear from early setbacks in the field that a sustained draft would be needed to man the Union armies, Congress passed the first of several versions of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SSCRA). Even then, the protection for all active-duty personnel was necessitated by military pay that was markedly inferior to civilian wage scales.
As World War I came to a close, the re-enactment as SSCRA of 1918 maintained the rationale of Congress to shield soldiers and sailors from such side-effects of low military pay as repossession of property, bankruptcy, or foreclosure. The blanket protection against civil action was not, however, in effect. Like the original Civil War act, a provision mandated expiration after the war ended.
The SSCRA of 1940 was passed that year as the country geared up to enter World War II. This version is the best-known because, unlike its predecessors, SSCRA 1940 was enacted with the expiry provision deliberately left out. In the nearly seven decades that passed, Congress maintained the umbrella of protection over all active-duty personnel through the Korean, Vietnam, and Middle East wars and minor brushfires in between.
The Act originally enacted during the Civil War had the effect of suspending any and all civil actions – whether breach of contract, bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce proceedings. In basic terms, this meant that any legal action involving a civil matter was put on hold until after the soldier or sailor returned from the war (Armed Forces Information Service 1). Not having to be bothered by possible turmoil and financial judgments that might be brought against him, the citizen soldier could concentrate on obeying orders and waging war. Consequently, there was one less matter that might plague unit morale and esprit de corps.
In the modern era of increasingly sophisticated financial markets, an Air National Guard pilot who leaves his civilian job as senior Southwest Airlines pilot to perform medical evacuation duties during the latest military “surge” in Afghanistan would be in serious trouble trying to keep up with the first and second mortgages on the family home and repaying the load of deferred credit card charges that came due during the six months he was away because military pay is, of course, much less. By taking advantage of SSCRA, however, he is confident that his credit rating is as good as before and his mortgages still show as current on his return
The 1991 and 2003 amendments included finally covering the Air Force (counting the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve when on federal duty), all National Guard Units serving for more than 30 days on emergency duty, raising the protection against eviction of dependents without court order to rent levels beyond the $150. set in the 1966 amendment to $1,200, prohibited retaliatory action by creditors (including e.g., attempting to renegotiate a loan or mortgage contract while the serviceman was away at war), protected health care providers and other professionals who serve from having to maintain malpractice insurance payments, allowed the definition of “court” to now comprise “an administrative agency of the United States or of any State”, permitted a stay of court proceedings of up to ninety days when the serviceman had clearly not received notice of hearing, specified that the 6% cap on interest payments should be “forgiven” by creditors unless it was shown that the serviceman could afford the contracted interest on military pay alone, prohibits states from isolating and moving a working spouse to a higher income tax bracket, (Portoff 51, 54; Meixell 1-8).
SSCRA also protects the right of active-duty personnel to vote in their home state and limits the application of all taxes, licenses and fees only to those he is liable to in his home state. So an officer from Nevada on TDY in San Diego need not pay the city sticker, personal property tax or stringent emission penalties that apply for his car in California.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and the Global War on Terror
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) bolsters and clarifies the language of the Veterans’ Reemployment Rights (VRR) statute. USERRA is meant to greatly reduce the loss of seniority and other disadvantages a serviceman can incur for having to take leave from civilian employment in order to serve in the military. The Act also strengthens enforcement mechanisms and commits to Department of Labor assistance when processing claims against one’s employer.
USERRA redounds to the benefit of every patriotic individual who may sacrifice seniority and benefits to serve his country and protect suffering foreign peoples in a “war on terror” for which the ongoing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the latest in an arduous fight stretching back to the 1972 massacre of the entire Israeli team at the Munich Olympics. The ex-serviceman can be gratified that the Act covers service in all the uniformed services and mandates all employers in the public and private sectors, including Federal employers, to ensure re-employment without diminution of seniority or benefits. USERRA also calls on employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate servicemen who suffer a disability in combat.
The USERRA law also protects servicemen from the kind of backlash and discrimination they endured during the Vietnam War, when it was fashionable for the likes of Jane Fonda to put down those who had not dodged the draft. To avoid a repetition of that shameful episode in modern American civics, the Act mandates Veteran Preference in training and employment, a program administered by the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) of the Department of Labor. After all, public memory needs frequent reminding of the anguish and shock inflicted on the nation when al Qaeda crashed four jetliners and caused unprecedented damage on 9/11.
Armed Forces Information Service. Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940: A Brief History. 2009. Web.
Meixell, John T. Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Replaces Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act. Office of the Judge Advocate General, U.S. Army, Legal Assistance Policy Division. n.d. Web.
Portoff, James P. Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act Protection: An Update for the War against Terrorism. Virginia Lawyer 2001: 48-55. Web.
United States Dept. of Labor. Overview of USERRA. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy / Office of Compliance Assistance Policy. 2009. Web.