WASHINGTON — The Labor Department on Thursday sought to defend its record of helping reservists who are denied their old civilian jobs when they come back from war.

Lawmakers said the system is broken; one senator called the procedures for veterans seeking help a confusing "Walter Reed-like nightmare."

Charles Ciccolella, the department's assistant secretary for veterans' employment and training, acknowledged that officials could do a better job protecting the legal rights of troops who take leave from work to fight for their country.

But Ciccolella said the solution was to improve education of employers — not to litigate more cases in court. Most disputes can be resolved with a phone call to an employer explaining what the law is, he said.

"In many cases, the employer does not understand the law," Ciccolella told a Senate panel. "It is not the egregious, 'We are not going to hire you or fire you."'

A Pentagon survey of reservists in 2005-06, released Thursday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, details increasing discontent among returning troops under strain from extended tours in Iraq.

It found that 44 percent said they were dissatisfied with how the Labor Department handled their complaint of employment discrimination based on their military status, up from 27 percent in 2004.

Nearly one-third, or 29 percent, said they had difficulty getting the information they needed from government agencies charged with protecting their rights, while 77 percent of those with a complaint said they didn't even bother trying to get assistance, in part because they didn't think it would make a difference.

The findings come amid intense political and public scrutiny of veterans' care following reports earlier this year of substandard outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the premier hospital for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate panel, called the findings "appalling." He said he plans legislation to hold agencies accountable by requiring them to collect and release employment data, noting that the Pentagon did not release the survey until he specifically asked for it.

The Labor Department currently releases an annual report on employment complaints to Congress, but the figures do not include Pentagon data. The report, due to Congress on Feb. 1, has yet to be released this year.

"Veterans who seek help face a Walter Reed-like nightmare — a system that is crumbling and failing to serve them when they need it most," Kennedy said. "Our laws require the federal government to defend veterans' rights, but those who seek help must wait for months, even years, just to get a simple answer."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, agreed. She described a veteran in her state who was told his specific position had been eliminated when he returned home and was given a "comparable" position in a city more than one hour away by plane.

He filed a complaint with the Labor Department but waited seven years while officials apparently had forgotten about it or neglected it, Murkowski said.

"How can we have a system that lets a veteran fall through the cracks like that?" she asked. "This is a system that is not working."

Legal experts say the Pentagon's findings might represent the tip of the iceberg. Formal complaints to the Labor Department by reservists hit nearly 1,600 in 2005 — the highest number since 1991 — not counting the thousands more cases reported each year to the Pentagon for resolution by mediation.

And a bump in complaints is likely once the Iraq war winds down and more people come home after an extended period in which employers were forced to restructure or hire new workers to cope with those on military leave, they said.

Among the survey's findings:

—About 23 percent of reservists reported they did not return to their old jobs in part because their employer did not give them prompt re-employment or their job situation changed in some way while they were on military leave.

—Twenty-nine percent of those choosing not to seek help to get their job back said it was because it was "not worth the fight." Another 23 percent said they were unsure of how to file a complaint. Others cited a lack of confidence that they could win (14 percent); fear of employer reprisal (13 percent), or other reasons (21 percent).

—Reservists reported receiving an average of 1.8 briefings about their job rights and what government resources were available. This is down slightly from the 2.0 briefings they reported getting in 2004.

"Most of the government investigators are too willing to accept the employer's explanation for a worker's dismissal," said Sam Wright, a former Labor Department attorney who helped write the 1994 discrimination law protecting reservists.

"Some of it is indifference, some of them don't understand the laws involved," Wright said. "But the investigators establish for themselves this impossibly hard standard to win a case."

Under the law, military personnel are protected from job discrimination based on their service and are generally entitled to a five-year cumulative leave with rights to their old jobs upon their return. Reservists typically file a complaint first with a Pentagon office, the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), which seeks to resolve the dispute informally.

If that effort fails, a person typically can go to the Labor Department to pursue a formal complaint and possible litigation by the Justice Department.