SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich today officially welcomed home 180 Illinois soldiers after they spent more than a year on duty in Iraq. The Soldiers, members of 233rd Military Police Company, served more than 14 months overseas providing force protection and installation security in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the homecoming celebration, Gov. Blagojevich signed a new law, called the “Citizen Soldier Initiative”, that protects all Illinois soldiers from discrimination – those serving on active duty and all members of the Illinois National Guard and U.S. Reserves. The “Citizen Soldier Initiative” is the first of its’ kind in the nation.
“It’s my honor to welcome these brave men and women home after more than a year at war,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “On behalf of all the people of Illinois, I thank them for fighting to protect us from terrorism and we’re grateful that they came home safe. By signing this new law today, we can show the soldiers our gratitude – that we are doing everything we can to protect their rights, as they are protecting us.”
House Bill 4371, an initiative of Lt. Governor Pat Quinn and sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) and Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), extends the Illinois Human Rights Act to all members of the Illinois National Guard and U.S. Reserves. Currently, the Illinois Human Rights Act only protects active duty service members from discrimination in regards to employment, real estate transactions, access to financial credit and the availability of public accommodations. The new law provides that same protection to those serving in reserve units of the armed forces, the Illinois Army National Guard and the Illinois Air National Guard.
“I am happy to have worked with Sen. Obama and Rep. Chapa La Via on this important bill to protect those who, at any moment, are willing to leave their civilian lives in order to preserve and protect ours,” Lt. Gov. Quinn said. “Citizen soldiers should be encouraged for what they do, not discriminated against by employers, landlords and lenders who reward their patriotism with rejection notices. I salute Governor Blagojevich for signing this important bill and showing the rest of the nation how much Illinois supports its troops.”
“This bill sends a message to employers, landlords and lenders that discrimination against anyone – especially our National Guard members and reservists – will not be tolerated in Illinois,” Sen. Obama said."If our service men and women are overseas fighting to protect our freedom, then we should fight to protect their financial security back home. I am honored to have this opportunity to give back to our citizen soldiers who have given us so much. We will never forget their bravery and sacrifice.”
The new law is designed to ensure that members of reserve units are treated equally and fairly – specifically in terms of employment, housing and credit. Since September 11th, 2001, some guard members and reservists report being turned down for jobs because employers have been afraid they will be called up to active duty on short notice. There are also reports that some employers have even gone so far as to threaten to fire workers if they enter the Guard or the Reserves. In the area of housing, some landlords have refused to rent to guard members – for fear they would be called up and break their leases. And, while federal law caps interest rates for active duty military at 6%, guard members and reservists report instances where they are being charged higher rates to make up for any difference if they are called up to active duty.
“I’m proud that my efforts along with those of the General Assembly have made a statement that Illinois cares about our service members and veterans,” said Rep. Chapa LaVia. “These measures work to provide a smoother transition to and from military and civilian life for those who serve our country.”
HB 4371 is effective immediately. If military members have a claim under the Human Rights Act, they can call 1-800-662-3942 and report violations to the Illinois Department of Human Rights to investigate the charges. After investigations, the Illinois Human Rights Commission can rule to order offenders to award jobs, apartments or interest rates service member – plus attorney fees.
Since 9/11, more than 5,400 Illinois guard members and reservists mobilized for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The Illinois citizen soldiers, including the 233rd Military Police Company, were called to federal active duty in February 2003 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“More than a year ago, the soldiers of the 233rd Military Police Company answered the call to duty. They left their families and employers to defend our country, and they performed their mission with honor and distinction under the most austere and dangerous conditions. We are glad to have them home," said Brig. Gen. Randal Thomas, Adjutant General of the Illinois National Guard.
The ceremony honored members of the 233rd MP Company, who returned from overseas in April, for their wartime service. The unit was recognized as part of the National Guard Bureau’s Freedom Salute Campaign for their sacrifice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As part of the Freedom Salute Campaign, every Soldier received an encased American Flag, a commemorative coin and certificate of appreciation. Spouses and employers also received special recognition.
“This program is one way for us to show our soldiers, their families and their employers how much their sacrifices are appreciated, “ said Gen. Thomas.