As a young Fairfax County police officer, Erik Tate also held a spot in the Marine Corps Reserves, so when his unit was called to Saudi Arabia in late 1990 for Desert Shield, Tate gave up his patrolman's uniform for a soldier's.
Three months later, Tate nearly gave up his life when his military truck crashed in the Kuwaiti desert and caught fire, killing the driver who sat next to him. Tate suffered burns over 65 percent of his body and lost most of his left leg.
Doctors predicted two years of recovery. But Tate fought back, learned to walk again with an artificial leg and returned to full duty as a Fairfax police officer in January 1992--about nine months after the accident.
Now, Fairfax County wants Tate off the police force.
Police commanders recently notified him that because of his injuries, they are placing him on light duty--a job classification that he calls unnecessary and that county policy says he can have for only one year. If his condition hasn't improved within 12 months, officials say, he can either take a civilian job or be fired.
Fairfax police officials said they have nothing against Tate but have a policy of not keeping permanently injured officers on the payroll for 15 or 20 years.
"The purpose of the policy," which went into effect two years ago, "is to ensure that people in police officer positions are able to function as police officers," said Deputy Chief Richard J. Rappoport.
It was carefully devised, he said, and has nearly wiped out restricted duty rolls.
Tate, who says no county doctor has ever tested his mobility or questioned his capacity to perform "essential job tasks" of a police officer on the street, has responded with a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
He seeks not only to keep his job but also to get compensatory damages and legal fees.
"I must've read it about 100 times," Tate, 34, said of the letter informing him of his pending dismissal. "I still read it. I can't believe it's happening to me."
It isn't the first time the issue has arisen. Two years ago, Fairfax police sent Tate a similar notice. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and provided a letter from his doctor saying he was fit for full duty.
The department reinstated him, and the EEOC ruled that Fairfax was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now, the issue has returned. "You get frustrated, disappointed," Tate said. "You think you have closure to something, it opens it back up. And it's not just about Erik Tate now. I have two little ones," he said, noting that he supports his wife, Shirl, and two boys, ages 5 and 18 months.
Rappoport noted that the EEOC opinion did not carry the authority of a federal court, which enforces discrimination law.
"We're confident that we're in compliance with any federal statute with regards to employment law," he said.
Tate's lawyer disagrees. Her client has a high-tech titanium knee and leg that allows him nearly full mobility.
"They say, without any basis, they don't think he could run," lawyer Carla M. Siegel said. "But in fact, he can. He plays basketball, he goes skiing, he can patrol streets, he can work accidents. For the department to say, 'We're going to presume you can't do all these things,' that's a prime example of discrimination."
Tate was something of a local hero in 1991 when he returned from a three-month stay in a military hospital in Germany. Fellow Fairfax officers donated enough paid leave to support Tate for a year. Friends and classmates from South Lakes High School in Reston, where he graduated in 1983, organized a benefit basketball game against members of the Washington Redskins, including Gary Clark, Art Monk and Charles Mann.
"At that game," Tate said, then-Chief John E. Granfield "said I'd have a job whenever I'm ready. That was a motivational tool for me."
The game raised $8,500 for Tate, who in turn pledged to organize a similar event the next year for Children's Hospital. This time, he would be playing, he promised.
And he was. "Scored six points, too," said Tate, with the enduring braggadocio of a former three-sport varsity athlete.
But getting to that point was agonizing. He struggled through skin grafts and uncomfortable prosthetics and gradually became mobile again. In January 1992, he joined the warrant squad, helping track down and arrest criminals.
"No problems," Tate said. With his disability concealed, the barrel-chested Tate said no one ran from him, "and I didn't tell people, 'I've got one leg, and now I'm going to lock you up.' "
After Tate's first tour of restricted duty and then his reinstatement, Fairfax police began requiring that their own doctors examine officers. The doctors ruled that Tate did not meet the standards for an active-duty officer, although Tate said they never looked at his titanium leg or asked him about his abilities on it.
"It just seems like it's a waste," said J.D. Fowler, president of the Fairfax Police Coalition, "especially in Erik's case, where he probably can do 99.9 percent of the job."
CAPTION: Fairfax police officer Erik Tate lost most of his left leg during military duty in Desert Storm. He has a high-tech titanium knee and leg.
CAPTION: Erik Tate suffered burns on his hands during a military truck crash in Kuwait in 1991.