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Chicago veteran fired after taking extended leave from CTA job for PTSD diagnosis

Chicago veteran fights firing after taking extended leave from CTA job
Chicago veteran fights firing after taking extended leave from CTA job 04:34

CHICAGO (CBS) – AWOL, it means absent without leave. The military term took on a whole new meaning for a Chicago veteran.

CBS 2's Lauren Victory explained his battle over an AWOL accusation.

James Jackson was pushing forward with a job he never expected. Nearly 40 years ago, he was flying high as a paratrooper for the U.S. Army.

"These are the indention from me being in traction," Jackson said, showing scars from surgery for a broken neck after a car accident while in the service.

He added, "That ended my career as far as being able to jump out of airplanes and that type of thing."

So he shifted gears, literally. Jackson became a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority, better known as CTA.

"Back in 1994, a lot of the operators, the older operators, were old vets," he said.

Jackson said he felt at home and spent 22 years behind the wheel.

"I had always aspired to do something more," he said.

After completing his overnight route, Jackson would go to college in the morning. He was promoted to CTA manager when he graduated.

"It was one of the happiest days of my life," Jackson said.

With his walkie-talkie in hand and badge around his neck, Jackson handled attendance and discipline issues. He loved the job but felt exhausted, mentally and physically, in June 2021.

"I was really feeling like if I didn't take off that I could've literally like dropped dead on the job," Jackson said.

He hit the brakes and applied for short-term disability "due to stress, anxiety," he said.

Doctors for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gave Jackson a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and, eventually, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"I was in trouble, and so I took off to attend to my issues," he said.

Six months later, on Dec. 17, his disability leave was maxed out.

Victory: "So, it says you're approved until Dec. 17 and on Dec. 18, nobody's calling you, texting you, emailing saying, 'Hey, you were supposed to show up for work?'"

Jackson: "Not at all."

Jackson didn't think anyone would be reaching out because he said he told higher-ups weeks ahead of time that he needed to stay home longer.

"What can I do to get more time?" he said. "And that's when this person that I was talking to mistakenly told me to apply for CTA's long-term disability, which I did."

It was a mistake because Jackson's long-term disability claim was pending when his short-term benefits ran out, putting him in something of a leave limbo.

CTA called it "absence without leave" or AWOL.

Jackson read from an email he said no one replied to.

"I am somewhat confused regarding the assertion that I am AWOL and in non-compliance," he wrote.

Eventually, Jackson was fired for "poor attendance" on March 1, even though his long-term disability claim was still pending at that point.

"To me, it felt evil," he said.

CBS 2 combed through a transcript from a hearing when Jackson appealed his firing and lost. A supervisor called Jackson a "very respectful, very cordial person" but testified his "excessive absenteeism" caused co-workers to be "overworked" and "stressed."

CTA needed to fire Jackson to be able to "hire somebody" else to "release some of the burden" on others.

"I think employers can still be put into very difficult positions given the unpredictable nature of the recovery process," said Eric Meyer, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health.

Meyer specializes in PTSD, the condition Jackson went on leave for.

Meyer: "I want to be very clear about this. Recovery is not only possible, but it's commonplace."

Victory: "Is there a typical timeframe in which somebody would be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder?"

The short answer was that there are a variety of routes to recovery. Meyer said some people just need more time.

Jackson said his CTA coverage for therapy stopped when he was fired.

"Thank God for the [Veterans Administration]," he said. "Because I was able to fall on them to continue my treatment and all of that. If I didn't have them, I would've-."

Jackson paused and shook his head.

It's a hard-to-fathom situation and an unimaginable place Jackson found himself in. He's now delivering flowers to get by.

Jackson said the firing messed up his recovery and his pension. He was almost fully vested when he was let go.

CBS 2 reached out to the CTA with several questions about Jackson's case but didn't get many answers. A CTA spokesperson cited pending litigation.

Jackson can't afford a lawyer, but is trying to fight his termination through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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