WASHINGTON — Richard Gengler flew jet fighters for his country. He did it so well that the Navy refused to let him go.
Now, the former fighter pilot has his freedom, but he's still in federal court. A Fresno, Calif., judge must soon decide whether the Navy owes Gengler and a fellow combat veteran money for a legal battle that exposed serious grievances in military recruiting.
"I feel saddened and surprised by the Navy's conduct," Gengler said. "The Navy has continually failed to treat (us) with the same integrity and honor that they insisted from us during our 10-year service to our country."
Gengler is now a business student at the University of Chicago. Daniel McSeveney is now an airline pilot. Civilian life becomes them. But until December, both relished flying the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet. Both won medals for bravery over Iraq.
Both signed contracts for seven years of service as naval aviators. Both flew numerous combat missions over Iraq. And both were flabbergasted when the Navy informed them that the contracts were wrong, and that the men owed eight years.
Gengler and McSeveney sued in U.S. District Court in Fresno, and eventually the Navy let them out. Now, they want the Navy to pay $200,835.75 in legal fees. It's the one fight the two former lieutenant commanders never expected.
"I absolutely loved my time in the Navy," McSeveney said, echoing Gengler's feelings. "However, all these great memories have been tarnished by the Navy's actions at the very end of my service. I still find it almost impossible to believe that they would treat Rich and me in this manner."
A hearing before U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger on Aug. 6 will air the arguments on both sides.
Gengler and McSeveney say the Navy should reimburse the law firms of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith and Bingham McCutcheon for the lawsuit. They say their legal expenses were appropriate, thanks in part to pro bono assistance from University of California at Berkeley law professor Charles D. Weisselberg.
The Navy says it rendered the lawsuit moot by releasing the men. Legal fees need only be paid in a lawsuit where one party formally prevails. The Navy further calls the $200 an hour in fees Gengler and McSeveney are seeking "wholly unreasonable."
The Navy argues that involuntary military service is an uncomfortable wartime reality. While Gengler and McSeveney ultimately were cut loose, the Bush administration wants control of military manpower during the Iraq war.
"If you allow officers to go back and sue for breach of contract, and be discharged from their obligations after they served the minimum service requirement, this country is going to have a real problem defending itself," Fresno-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly A. Gaab argued in court.
Judge Wanger acknowledges the complications.
"There are very, very difficult, if you will, subjective considerations going on in this case," Wanger noted last year. "There is no question the Navy made the mistake. The Navy created the problem . . . . However, it has not acted unreasonably in trying to resolve the case."
Formerly based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California's San Joaquin Valley, Gengler and McSeveney weren't the first military personnel to seek release. Soldiers have unsuccessfully challenged the Army's "stop loss" program, which keeps soldiers in uniform beyond their expected discharge dates.
The Navy doesn't have a formal stop-loss program. Like the Army, though, it has manpower needs that can override personal preferences.
"For the secretary of the Navy to be able to maintain and organize and mobilize and defend this country, the secretary of the Navy needs the discretion on which officers he needs to retain and at what positions," Gaab argued in legal papers.
A deal is a deal, the former Navy officers reply.
"If the Navy really doesn't consider itself bound by its own recruiting agreements as to the length of service, it should be forced to change its recruiting practices," Weissleberg said.
It's unclear how many other officers might face similar problems, but it's clear that Gengler and McSeveney didn't foresee any of this when they enlisted in 1996.
Gengler is now 35, a Wisconsin native who graduated from the University of Minnesota. McSeveney, now 36, is a Tennessee native and a graduate of the University of California at San Diego. The two men have been friends since their training days.
They signed identical enlistment papers, providing for seven years of active duty following their designation as naval aviators. Their actual Navy service was longer, since the aviator designation comes only after extensive training.
As their seven-year terms came to an end, they started the administrative process for being released. Anticipating his discharge, McSeveney bought a home in Denver, and Gengler enrolled in business school.
The Navy had been discharging aviators through 2003 and earlier, but by 2004 officers were no longer being let go. The Navy started informing officers that, back in 1989, Congress had passed legislation setting eight years as the term of service for naval aviators. The legislation trumped the "outdated service obligation form" signed by Gengler and McSeveney, the Navy said.
The Navy later modified its argument. Officers, it contended, serve at the pleasure of the president; the seven-year term was a minimum requirement that could be extended as the president wished.
The two men kept appealing, the Navy kept saying no, and in March 2006, Gengler and McSeveney sued. In mid-December 2006, on the eve of discovery for trial, the Navy agreed to release the two men from active duty.
"This issue is not about two individuals and how they were treated," Gengler said. "This issue is about whether the Navy has to honor the agreements that it makes with its service members."