United States Armed Forces service members (SM’s) and veterans experience unique situations in regards to the law and judicial system, family law, and accessing the benefits promised after living their lives of service and sacrifice for all other Americans. Filing for disability compensation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a bureaucratic marathon and can take years (approximately 1,038 days for the appeal process alone) before a claim is approved and the veteran can begin receiving benefits (BVA 22). This means a veteran who has incurred illness or injury so substantial as to necessitate years of treatment could face years of financial hardship until compensation is received. Other benefits such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and VA vocational rehabilitation all require several levels of approval and even after approval, yes, even after the VA says it will pay for your education and you incur the bill, if the paperwork was deemed to have been filed incorrectly, you the veteran will be left with thousands of dollars of debt and responsible for the school fees that the VA guaranteed they would cover. And, believe me, there is no recourse other than the appeals that go through the same approval process and are routinely denied by the same organization that violated their agreement… the VA.
This is not the only legal difficulties the average service member endures. SM’s are briefed that they have their constitutional rights, but with limitations. For example, no SM is allowed to participate in political activity in uniform or make statements to the press about the military while in uniform. All comments must be vetted through the SM’s branch public affairs office. SM’s are supposedly protected against unreasonable search and seizure. However, if the item is issued by the military or belongs to the military, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy if a commander orders an area to be “inspected.” Such searches under the guise of “health and welfare” inspections are legal and include broad sweeps of dorms and private rooms assigned to SM’s in their barracks. These are done routinely and are usually pre-announced, although if a commander gets wind of illegal drug use or underage drinking in the dorms, unannounced “inspections” occur. Obtaining a “warrant” or command authorized search of any SM or his/her personal belongings is simply obtained by presenting whatever justification a person has before a commander who can verbally authorize a search. Any commander at any level can authorize a search of a person or his/her personal effects if the items are located on federal property and if that commander is in the person’s chain of command. There is no rank requirement or rule that must be met. The “health and welfare” inspections are usually done if the command does not have the whole story, if a situation can not justify a command authorized search, or simply for no reason at all. The latest broad-sweeping infringement of right to privacy came from the Air Force’s Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III, who recently sent out a force-wide email to all commands stating airmen are subject to the UCMJ and represent the Air Force in all times and in all places, whether on- or off-duty. These were the General’s thoughts on the recent Air Force Instruction 1-1 that states,
[Airmen] must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior on social networking platforms and through other forms of communication that could bring discredit upon on [sic] the Air Force or you as a member of the Air Force, or that would otherwise be harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.
These statements and instructions are used by commanders as justification for simply requesting one’s cell phone to be “inspected” for illegal activity. Any private communication between a SM and spouse is on the table, and not simply as an incidental finding, but for justification. The General’s comments were issued after he was questioned for disciplining three pilots who were found sending text messages back and forth that referenced, “Molly,” or the drug ecstasy. The pilots defended themselves, saying that “Molly” was supposedly a code word for females they met on a business trip to Las Vegas that the pilots suspected were on drugs; in other words, a private joke. And although the pilots were cleared of all illegal activity including drug use, they were still disciplined for being “unprofessional” in their texts and stripped of their “wings,” which is career ending for pilots (Carr).
God forbid our airmen have private jokes amongst one another. Unfortunately, there is no recourse for SM’s who are victims of commanders’ bad decisions and it happens frequently.
Another problem SM’s have is obtaining qualified private counsel when it becomes necessary to defend themselves against whatever latest accusation is being pinned on them. I personally reached out to civilian attorneys who claimed to be “military” experts and therefore “qualified” to represent SM’s in their times of need. After a few minutes of conversation, it was evident three of the four attorneys did not appear to have any basic knowledge of the military, or even what education benefits were available to the military. And they had not served.
I also sent several emails and requests for information to a local non-profit organization that advertised they were national and provided resources specifically for female veterans. I received only frequent blanket requests for donations and links to their website where I could contribute. This seemed odd and triggered my “Spidey”-senses; something was amiss. Knowing that non-profits must make their tax information accessible to the public, I did a little digging. My years as a military investigator paid off when I found their files posted online. This non-profit was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state of Texas in the form of grants and at least 95% of this money was going to the salaries of 3-4 paid employees. Hundreds of thousands of dollars was going towards just one paid employee’s salary. The “services” the non-profit provided? It posted links to resources available to women in Texas, such as local domestic violence shelters and the Department of Health and Human Services. And there was a page on the site that offered a chat room where female veterans could communicate to each other for support. The state of Texas offers grants to non-profit organizations that help veterans. This non-profit successfully obtained one and was bilking the system. It costs nothing to post a website and collect donations.
The Solution and Mission
Sisters In Arms, our non-profit corporation registered with the state of Texas, will provide a low-cost or free, possibly subsidized system of legal support to represent all veterans and service members so they may receive the benefits promised such as, education, their retirement money, and/or disability benefits and free consultations for all other legal matters, including family law and criminal defense. Most services will not be provided for dependents of veterans or SM’s. Spouses and children may only apply for services that benefit the veteran, if the veteran is incapable of applying without assistance.
Over the next 2-5 years, I enter and then graduate law school and obtain my license to practice law in Texas. On my own time, I will recruit teams of attorneys that will provide free consultations or representation.
By 2020, 503c status will be obtained and we will apply for state grants to help veterans. All donated money and grants will be used specifically for filing fees, court costs, and other fees procured by attorneys that assume cases.
By 2025, the goal is to establish contacts and teams of volunteer attorneys throughout the nation, regionally, if not by state. All cases will be vetted by the same staff at our headquarters location in Fort Worth, TX.
In-take will be accomplished by case workers who will make initial contact with the veteran and get all specifics to forward to an attorney. This is staffed by volunteers with maybe one or two full-time employees paid by the hour, not salary. The uncompensated board will recruit attorneys that are willing to work pro-bono, but can offer payment plans for veterans that are able to pay. Teams of attorneys will be set up by region, if not by state.
Pro-bono legal work and conservators of financial resources obtained through donations and grants will be managed and assigned to local attorneys throughout a region or state, subject to the rights of the accused or petitioned veteran or SM. Attorneys will preview the case specifics forwarded to them from in-take case workers and will decide which cases to offer consultations. The veteran or SM will reserve the right to contract with an attorney either pro-bono or via payment plan. We can also offer a certification of approval for attorneys that want validation for their experience in military law.
By offering free consultations, SM’s and veterans are encouraged to seek legal advice and representation if needed. Sometimes, just an hour or two conversation with an attorney is all that is needed. The public will be assured that their money is being used properly and for the purpose for which it is intended. Service members’ rights will be protected and they will be assured of a long, successful career regardless of assignment and command’s capability to lead, or, will be guaranteed the benefits that were promised to them from the beginning of their service contract by being represented by attorneys with valid and verifiable experience with military law. Attorneys can advertise their qualification to represent SM’s and veterans with our certification of approval verifying their experience with our “customers.”
Board of Veterans’ Appeals. “Annual Report Fiscal Year 2014.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Board of Veterans’ Appeals. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014. Web. 1 December 2015.
Carr, Tony. “In Message to Wing Commanders, Welsh Declares ‘Zero Privacy’ Doctrine For All Airmen.” JohnQPublicBlog. Bright Mountain, LLC, 2015. Web. 1 December 2015.