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May 26--CLINTON -- Kirk Garland lost his job, his home and his health following the July 28, 2012, break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.
But he hasn't lost his fight.
Garland returned to Y-12 last month for a difficult six-hour arbitration hearing, where once again he defended his actions as the first guard on the scene of the biggest security breach in the plant's history. He said he might not have done everything perfectly, but he said he got the job done and didn't deserve to be fired or made a scapegoat for the embarrassing intrusion.
In the days following the break-in, investigators swarmed upon Y-12 to determine what went wrong that allowed three peace activists -- including an 82-year-old nun -- to defy odds and reach the plant's high-security storage center for bomb-grade uranium, where they spray-painted messages and Bible verses, sloshed the walls with human blood, and decorated the site with crime-scene tape.
By the time Garland was dispatched to the scene in the predawn darkness, the deed was already done. The activists had completed their epic protest, for which they now reside in prison, and they didn't offer any resistance or try to flee when the guard arrived in his security vehicle.
In the hours following the event, Garland said he was repeatedly praised and patted on the back by his bosses at Wackenhut Services, then the security contractor at Y-12, and others. He said one of his supervisors even suggested that he might be due a commendation for his handling of the unique situation in a high-security setting.
However, in the days that followed, as some of the initial investigations were concluded, Garland said the tone began to change. He said a union official told him that he might be told to take a few days off.
Garland's actions that morning came under fire for being too lax, too casual, not tough enough for the time and circumstances. Critics said if the trio of peace activists had actually been a diversionary tactic for armed terrorists, Y-12 -- the nation's principal repository for weapons-usable uranium -- would have been in deep trouble.
"I was a hero for about two days and then I turned into a zero," he said.
On Aug. 10, almost two weeks after the break-in, Garland was fired for not following procedures. The International Guards Union of America, Local 3, filed a grievance on his behalf, seeking reinstatement and full compensation. The grievance has been working through the system for the past two years, and Garland's fate is now in the hands of a federal arbitrator.
"Like I told the arbitrator ... we can sit here and you can scrutinize me all you want, but at the end of the day I stopped their actions, I detained them, I called for backup, we arrested them, I testified against them and they're in prison. How much more picture perfect can it be than that? And I went home to my family, and nobody got killed and nobody got hurt."
Getting fired knocked Garland for a loop, financially and otherwise.
His wife had some serious health problems, and within a few days of his termination by Wackenhut, his health coverage was discontinued.
Garland eventually was able to land a job as a prison guard at the Morgan County Correctional Facility, but the drop in income was dramatic.
As a member of the elite protective force at Y-12, Garland got good pay and plenty of opportunities for overtime. In one year, Garland worked about 1,200 hours of overtime at Y-12 and earned close to $100,000. Even after the overtime hours dropped, he still was able to make about $85,000.
At the regional prison, the 53-year-old guard said he makes about $28,000 annually -- and that's with a recent pay bump. He's glad to have a job, said he likes the work, and is especially thankful to have health coverage.
Last November, he started having some unusual responses with his body. At first, he had problems writing with his right hand, and then he experienced a feeling of heaviness in his right leg and couldn't walk normally.
After five MRIs, a spinal tap, and other tests, doctors diagnosed multiple sclerosis. The prescribed medication helped Garland overcome those symptoms, and his prison health insurance pays almost all of the costs for the drugs, which otherwise would cost him $5,000 a month.
"I'm doing good right now," he said.
But the financial crunch cost him his home in Lake City and two vehicles. He now rents a place on the rural outskirts of Clinton, with six acres and room for his horses and dogs. It's about 34 miles from the Morgan County prison, and his daily commute is about 45 minutes each way to work the second shift -- 2 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Asked if he'd return to work at Y-12 if he could, Garland hesitated briefly, but said, "Yeah, I'd go back. Sure would. I enjoyed my job and took my job seriously."
Returning to Y-12 is not really an option. Even if he wins the arbitration case, Wackenhut can't offer Garland his job back because Wackenhut is no longer the security contractor at Y-12. The company's contract was terminated in the wake of the break-in.
Garland is hoping to get a financial settlement that will include back pay for the time since he was fired, as well as the potential overtime over the past couple of years.
He said he thinks about the Y-12 incident all the time, replays the early-morning events of July 28 in his mind. He acknowledges that he's bitter about the outcome.
While he would do some things differently, perhaps approach the protest scene in a different manner, Garland said he would mostly do what he did back in 2012.
He believes he was fired simply because Wackenhut and others hoped that taking some action would help cover up or divert attention from some of the bigger issues, such as cameras and detectors that didn't work as they should have. If the federal government and its contractors had done their job, his interaction with the protesters wouldn't have even been an issue, Garland said.
If Wackenhut hadn't laid off a number of security police officers in the months preceding the break-in, the peace activists probably would have been detained by security patrols before they ever got close to the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, he said.
Garland has been accused of being too nice to the three individuals who reached a forbidden area of the national security facility in Oak Ridge. There are signs inside Y-12 warning intruders that deadly force is authorized, but Garland said he would have been vilified and put in prison himself if he'd shot one of the protesters. Having worked at the government's nuclear weapons facilities for 30 years, he said he knew what to do and did what was necessary to gain control and order.
He said he carries that same attitude in his current job at the Morgan County prison.
"I treat people with respect," he said. "I work around murderers and rapists every day. I don't have to cuss them out. I just tell them the rules."
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