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Fit for warfare but not mail duty Postal Service rejects Iraq veteran because he suffered an ankle sprain

While Sgt. Jason R. Lyon was serving with the Army in Iraq, he suffered a sprained ankle when he jumped off a Humvee. He also nearly had his head blown off by a roadside bomb that killed three of his friends.

After extensive medical treatment and physical therapy, military doctors have certified the Hamburg serviceman physically fit to return to combat duty in Iraq.

But the U.S. Postal Service says he is physically unfit to deliver mail.

"To me, it really seems unfair," said the National Guardsman, who was recently turned down for a postal carrier job because of the ankle injury he suffered in Baghdad in July 2004.

"The military says I can go to combat. I can march, run, fight in a war and do anything else a soldier can do. But the Postal Service says I'm not fit to deliver letters."

A frustrated Lyon, 28, spoke about his dilemma in his home Monday, showing a Buffalo News reporter his Purple Heart for wounds suffered later and a thick stack of medical reports from the Army, declaring him fully fit for military duty.

"Currently no limitations of military or civilian activity," a National Guard medical officer wrote in a report on Lyon last month.

A doctor for the Postal Service saw it differently, ruling that Lyon's ankle injury makes him unfit to be hired as a mail carrier. A physician for the Postal Service called the injury a "physical impairment" that would make it difficult for Lyon to walk or stand for long periods of time.

The decision is not meant as a personal slap at Lyon, said Karen L. Mazurkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Western New York district of the Postal Service.

Mazurkiewicz said Lyon, who is currently unemployed, still could pursue a position as a mail clerk or custodian, and she noted that veterans do receive hiring preference.

"We have a rich history of hiring veterans, but we have to look at each candidate and make an assessment of how they would handle the physical requirements of the job," Mazurkiewicz said. "There is a lot of bending, twisting, lifting and walking on uneven surfaces for a mail carrier. . . . It is a very strenuous job."

Perhaps so, said Lyon, but no more strenuous than anything he has dealt with in 10 years with the military.

He noted that he has also worked part time for United Parcel Service, on and off, for the last five years, performing similar duties to those of a mail carrier.

Lyon, a graduate of Frontier Central High School, joined the Army in 1996. After three years on active duty, he joined the New York National Guard. He now is a member of the 101st Cavalry Reconnaissance Unit, based at the Masten Avenue Armory. He was called to duty in Iraq from December 2003 until January 2005 with the Army's 108th Infantry.

In Iraq, he suffered a minor injury that is now hurting his employment chances and a major injury that he never expects to forget.

"I twisted my ankle in Baghdad, when I jumped off a Humvee in the dark and landed in a tire rut," he said. "The Army put my ankle in a cast, and two weeks later, I was back on combat patrols. I never left the war theater. I went back to all my duties as an infantryman."

That was in July 2004. Six months later, tragedy struck the squad Lyon was leading as it drove back to its base after a long night on combat patrol in northern Baghdad.

"It had been a long night. I was just telling the guys they could put a CD in the CD player," Lyon recalled. "Then the explosion hit."

A roadside bomb tore through the heavily armored Humvee that Lyon and four other soldiers were riding in. Three of the soldiers -- good friends of Lyon -- were killed instantly.

"It was a professionally made explosive. It tore through the Humvee like it was a tin can," Lyon said. "I heard the explosion. The next thing I knew, I was on fire and I had blood all over me. My right ear was almost torn off. I felt terror and helplessness, but I was the sergeant, and I had to take control of the situation."

Lyon was shipped out of Iraq to Germany, and then to the United States, for months of treatment for his burns and wounds. He is now back with his National Guard unit in Buffalo. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but that was not a factor cited by the Postal Service for turning down his application for postal carrier.

"Sometimes, when I am alone, I'm looking over my shoulder and feeling hyper alert," Lyon said. "But when I'm with other people, I'm fine."

The office of Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, has been trying to help Lyon in his dispute but without results. On March 11, Lyon got a letter from the Postal Service, saying a doctor for the service had refused to change her medical assessment.

"It's ridiculous," said the sergeant's wife, Sarah Lyon. "He's served his country in Iraq. He's worked for UPS for years, and he's been certified to go to Iraq again, if they need him. I have absolutely no doubt he can do the job of a mail carrier."

Lyon said he wants to work as a mail carrier, rather than a clerk or custodian. He said that a mail carrier earns higher pay -- about $17.80 an hour for the job he was seeking -- and gets to be out in the community, working with the public.

"This is Buffalo, and there are not a lot of good jobs like that one available," Lyon said. "I'm willing to work hard, and I want a good job."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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