DURHAM, N.C. — Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson was serving overseas with U.S. Special Forces when he received a letter from his civilian employer, the U.S. Postal Service.

In the 2000 notice, the agency informed him that he was being fired from his job as a postal clerk in Florida for taking too much time off to serve with the National Guard.

“I thought it was a joke,” Erickson said this week from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he serves with the Army’s Special Operations Command.

But when he got to a phone and called the postal service, he was told he had been terminated for taking “excessive military leave.”

Last week, after a seven-year legal battle, Erickson was awarded reinstatement and back pay. A federal appeals board denied a postal service appeal and ordered the agency to give him his job back, plus 14 years of back pay and other benefits that could total about $2 million. “I answered the call of duty and served my country – and I got fired for it,” said Erickson, who has been awarded medals for valor and a Purple Heart.

Thousands of veterans have filed complaints or lawsuits against their employers after losing civilian jobs while in the military. Legal experts say more claims are likely as the war in Afghanistan winds down and more Reserve and National Guard soldiers return to full-time civilian life.

Erickson’s case is unusual because the postal service, an independent agency of the U.S. government, continued to fight even after several court rulings in his favor. Even now, it refuses to say whether it will comply – or continue to appeal.

Erickson accused the agency of violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, which is designed to protect civilian jobs of service members called to military duty.

His lawyer, Matthew Estes, said the case should not have dragged on because the law is clear on service members’ rights to keep their civilian jobs.

“We thought it was a relatively simple issue,” Estes said. He hopes the decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board in Washington, D.C., “helps make sure employers think twice before firing someone who’s on military duty.”

The merit board rules on disputed federal personnel actions. In Erickson vs. U.S. Postal Service, it rejected the postal service’s contentions that Erickson had abandoned his job by being away for so long,