Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lawyers for Warriors: Year Zero

Memorial Day seems like a good time to mention Lawyers for Warriors.

I have effectively zero experience with military affairs save that which I acquired through books and movies, but that has never stopped a great many neoconservatives from pontificating on whom we should invade when to achieve a fantastic visions of a world in which we are loved by all who do not fear us (apathy being, it seems, the one emotion neoconservatives fear...). Therefore I with great confidence or perhaps arrogance planted the seed of "Lawyers for Warriors" to address a general problem broadly overlooked: that uniformed service to our great nation frequently results in legal problems not easily addressed on an E-4's salary.

Servicemembers, veterans and their families have the same legal problems as everyone else: divorce, landlords, mortgages, creditors and debtors, and so on. These problems can be exacerbated by some of the realities of military life, notably deployments and their aftermaths.

I ran into these problems head on as chair of the Washington State Bar Association's Section on World Peace Through Law. I had originally joined the Section post-9/11 because I figured we were headed into a period of lawlessness, in which practical study of how law and peace can create and reinforce each other was more important than ever. Leading up to Bush's invasion of Iraq, it was patently clear that he was simply making stuff up both on the facts and on the law, and it might be worth pointing that out. Surely, Perry-Mason-like, all we had to do was point this out and lawfulness would be restore.

I was wrong. Invented facts and fabricated legal justifications worked just fine when it comes to stirring up war fever, and no mere appeal to reality stood against them. (Humankind is a feeling animal, not a thinking one, or to be more precise, feeling is the primary component of the way we think. But the political mind is another topic.)

This experience motivated me to work harder on the subject. Toward the end of 2006, the subject of the law of military orders came up, probably inspired by Lieutenant Watada. Regardless of the details of his case, this brave officer had raised an important point: the law says an officer must refuse an illegal order, but how does this work in practice?

I put together a panel (or, more accurately, I found some great panelists and Jay Hastings, a great guy, organized the show) and in January 2007 "What Is An Illegal Order?" was presented, featuring several veterans explaining the blackletter law and how, in practice, it rarely matters. But again, that's another issue.

In developing this panel, it became clear to me that there were a host of issues addressing our military community, and to solve these problems in a comprehensive way was the responsibility of no-one. The community is large and inchaote: there are five uniformed services, each with its own structure; there are Regular, Reserve and Guard components; there are actively serving and veterans; there are the servicemembers and their families of all the above. Have I left anyone out? I apologize if so, but by my count we could have 5x3x2x2 = 60 population segments, and I haven't even addressed geographic (50+ Guard organizations), unit (how many divisions?), and economic (e.g. officer vs enlisted) issues. Truly this is a complex matter even before we consider distinctions written into law (Blue Water Navy vs. Brown Water, pre- vs. post-9/11 servicemembers, citizen vs. non-citizen).

It's no surprise that there are gaps in legal coverage. I never disparage the JAG Corps; those I've met are uniformly cool, competent and good to have on your side. But their mission is not to address those 60+ segments and they tend to be fully involved as is. So whose gig is it to fill the gaps? Nobody's.

Heck, whose job is it to IDENTIFY the gaps? (No intelligence means no solution.)

Nobody's. Or, as Bill Keane would say, "It's Not Me!"

Hence, Lawyers for Warriors. The first move was a training program called "Lawyers for Warriors", develop through WPTL jointly with the WSBA's Section on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel (LAMP). The former section supported the program on the grounds that servicemembers & families are a population heavily affected by our efforts and, too often, failures to maintain peace through law. The latter was already actively promoting CLEs on the subject, and happy to access a different set of lawyers. In four hours we learned enough to figure out that there was a lot to do, and merely running a few CLEs wasn't going to solve the problem.

Lawyers for Warriors is still a voluntary program and, like so many voluntary efforts, limps along because it's no-one's primary focus. I have a day job, after all: if a man can't feed himself, he can't help anyone else.

I hope, however, that by keeping on slogging through, doggedly, I can contribute in a small way to solving the problem. I've found some good buddies and helped develop partial solutions, such as Attorneys Assisting Citizen-Soldiers & Families. I'll record what I find here in my scrapbook or on the Lawyers for Warriors blog and see what happens.

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