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Lawsuit raises weighty military issue

      BRUNSWICK, Maine — Roger Sablone Jr. spent years cramming himself into his tiny Navy bunk, bumping his skull on bulkheads and working in the cramped engine room of a nuclear-powered submarine.
      After 10 years of service, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound sailor was told he was too big for his job. And when the Navy kicked him out for being overweight, it also took $9,200 of his re-enlistment bonus.
      Now Sablone, 31, of Homestead, Fla., is among 15 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Maine to Alaska suing to get their money back. The case, which was certified as a federal class-action lawsuit in Maine, has been transferred to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington.
      Its outcome could be far-reaching: Between 1990 and 1996, the Army alone forced more than 14,000 from its ranks for being overweight.
      The Navy has the right to discharge sailors who fail fitness tests three times in a four-year period. The suit doesn't dispute that, instead attacking the military over the enlistment or re-enlistment bonuses.
      A Pentagon spokesman referred questions about the suit to the Justice Department, where spokeswoman Chris Watney declined comment.
      Michael Feldman, a lawyer for the servicemen, said the Navy's only grounds for recouping the bonuses are misconduct, failure to perform duties or voluntary separation.
      "In effect, you can throw me out at any time if you think I'm overweight," Feldman said. "But don't take my bonus."
      All plaintiffs received honorable discharges upon being dismissed, he said.
      Sablone said he joined the Navy when there was no weight requirement. Later, a 225-pound standard was put in effect for his height; it then dropped to 215 pounds, and ultimately 211 pounds, he said.
      After a five-year stint aboard the USS Atlanta, he failed physical training tests in 1996 and 1997 before being dismissed last year at a weight of 240 pounds.
      Sablone expected to receive a severance package that included money from unused leave. But he ended up receiving a check for $1,700 after the Navy subtracted $9,200 in bonus money.
      Others have fared worse. Thomas Fryer, 29, of Colchester, Conn., a 6-foot sailor forced from the Navy in 1997 for his 255-pound weight, continues to make $66 monthly payments on the $1,500 he still owes the service.