The New York City Fire Department discriminated against a military veteran who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission by an Iraq War vet.
Julio Andrade, 30, of Queens, says the fire department discriminated against him in 2015 when it disqualified him from joining the force based on stereotypes about his previous diagnosis of PTSD and post-traumatic brain injury following the two combat tours he served in Iraq.
“You do what you feel is right for the country. You go away at a young age to join a combat unit,” Andrade, 30, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “To have that held against you, I was offended.”
The complaint is the latest charge of discrimination against the FDNY, which in 2014 settled a long-running lawsuit charging the department’s exam was biased against blacks and Latinos for $98 million.
This year, the FDNY updated its hazing policy after a black probationary firefighter said he was sexually harassed while visiting his new firehouse, where a senior firefighter stuck his penis and testicles near his face, the New York Post reported.
FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer declined to comment on Andrade’s case, citing “ongoing litigation.”
Andrade was studying for his degree in kinesiology at Penn State University when he passed the FDNY’s physical and psychological written exam. He withdrew from Penn State with the expectation that he would soon start his career as a firefighter.
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But during his application process, Andrade claimed a disabled veterans credit, which gives applicants 10 additional points on their exam. A pre-discharge examination from the Veterans Administration found that Andrade had a disability rating of 30 percent because of PTSD and 10 percent because of the traumatic brain injury after two tours in Iraq with the Marines, including active combat duty in places such as Ramadi, from 2005 to 2009.
Andrade, who started military training the day after his graduation from high school, was honorably discharged at the end of his second tour and classified as eligible for reenlistment.
“It’s not something that hinders my lifestyle,” Andrade said of his diagnosis.
FDNY psychologists disagreed. During a 15-minute interview in September 2015 as part of his oral psychological evaluation, psychiatrist Kevin Kelly made statements such as “people with PTSD can’t socialize” and “having a job is difficult” for them, according to the complaint.
Andrade was issued a notice of disqualification for psychological reasons on Feb. 29, 2016.
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Disagreeing with the decision, Andrade hired psychologist Mark D. Lerner to review the report. After four and half hours of meetings over two days, Lerner determined “there is no evidence of psychological impairment or psychopathology or any reason to psychologically disqualify” Andrade as a candidate for the fire department, according to his report.
Lerner also determined that Andrade did not demonstrate “any of the criteria for intrusive symptoms” of PTSD.
But after a second 15-minute psychological review with the FDNY, the original decision was affirmed, according to the complaint. Andrade said he explained that he was working full-time as a personal trainer but was told as long as he had a disability rating and was receiving benefits from Veterans Affairs that “it doesn’t look good” for him being approved.
The FDNY’s chief medical officer, Kerry Kelly, concluded that Andrade’s “history of PTSD does predispose him to relapse in a setting of firefighting,” in a Jan. 23, 2017, letter.
“Brain injury problems remain as a significant issue in an individual who will be exposed to daily life-threatening situations including additional trauma to the brain with concussions or traumatic injuries to the head in daily activity of a firefighter,” Kelly wrote.
Andrade said he was crushed.
“It just felt like they were running through the motions. I feel like they had their minds made up,” he said. “They saw the diagnosis and it was a red flag. They knew I was disqualified before I even walked in.”
The evaluations were based on stereotypes of people with PTSD rather than a current assessment of Andrade’s mental-health status and abilities, said Maia Goodell, a senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization that filed the complaint.
“The law requires the FDNY to give veterans like Julio Andrade a fair evaluation of their ability to do the job,” said Goodell.
Disability Rights Advocates is concerned this is a larger issue facing veterans and filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how many other veterans have been denied FDNY jobs based on PTSD.
Joe Bello, a Gulf War veteran and founder of NY MetroVets, said veterans describe a PTSD diagnosis as the “kiss of death” when applying for jobs with the FDNY or New York Police Department.
“It is one of the most kept secrets in the veteran community,” he said.
While Bello could not comment on Andrade’s case specifically, he said he is concerned with the long-term ramifications.
“Are we saying for the rest of this man’s life that he’s going to be stigmatized?” asked Bello.
Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq veteran and founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the FDNY has done a good job of “recognizing the potential” of veterans when it comes to hiring. While not familiar with Andrade’s case, Rieckhoff said there are some people with PTSD who might not be fit to work as a firefighter.
But the FDNY must have a clear policy that does not automatically disqualify someone with PTSD.
“It’s important for the FDNY to provide clarity and to not feed into the stereotype that you are a ticking time bomb or violent person if you have PTSD,” said Rieckhoff.
Dwyer declined to discuss the FDNY’s policy for determining if someone with PTSD is fit to serve. According to city guidelines, you must have a service-connected disability of at least 10 percent to qualify for the disabled veteran’s credit.
Andrade said he’s still hoping to serve as a firefighter one day.
“It’s a job that has a whole lot of pride in New York City,” he said. “I have brotherhood in the Marine Corps and there’s a brotherhood that goes along with firefighting.”