The Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation’s Military Matters program has mobilized a network of attorneys who provide pro bono representation to service members and veterans with a variety of legal needs. Some eligible clients have common legal issues involving family law, criminal defense, tax law, wills and trusts. Regular moves across country can lead to tax issues. Deployments mean planning out wills and estates. Some landlords fail to properly care for military renters or fail to return a deposit when the service member moves. Service members and veterans also have a full range of ordinary legal needs which can be addressed by volunteer attorneys.
Volunteer attorneys deeply impact the lives of the people who need their help. Without attorneys willing to donate their time, KCMBF would not be able to provide this much needed service. Most of the needs are in common areas of the law, and the requests are increasing as word gets out about this fabulous program. Not sure if we can use help in your area of the law? Chances are good that we still need your support. e help you provide expands beyond supporting one individual, it will impact their families and the community we are all a part of. While many of the needs are common, we want to share with you an uncommon story about a man who needed help and found support through the Military Matters program.
The Compelling Case
Specialist Andrew Vanderhaeghen served as an Infantryman in Kunar Province in 2010-2011. Eleven out of fourteen Medals of Honor awarded during the Afghanistan War were for actions in Kunar Province and neighboring Nuristan and the documentary “No Greater Love” tells the tale of his unit. Firefights, mortars, RPGs and roadside bombs were a daily occurrence for a full year. He earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge as he fought enemy combatants during operations, and he witnessed fellow soldiers and civilians getting wounded or killed.
Specialist Vanderhaeghen was awarded an Army Commendation Medal prior to deploying to Afghanistan for his service as the platoon Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). He was also awarded a Good Conduct Medal. Despite years of meritorious service, Spc. Vanderhaeghen was discharged from the United States Army and denied an honorable discharge which stripped him of rights to the Montgomery GI Bill, Department of Veteran’s Affairs educational assistance, and his $3,500 sign on bonus. By accepting responsibility and admitting to having previously used Valium without a prescription to sleep and possession of a bag of incense, which was then banned on Fort Campbell, he was not eligible for what he had earned during his time of service. Unfortunately, Vanderhaeghen was just one of many.
On December 3, 2015 the Army Times reported plans to conduct a “thorough, multidisciplinary review” of the 22,000 misconduct discharges issued since 2009. 1 Twelve senators requested an investigation of the cases in which symptoms of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or other mental health or behavioral health issues might have been a mitigating factor in the soldiers’ separations. These separations under less than honorable conditions resulted in the loss of many crucial medical, financial, and educational benefits. The senators also urged an Inspector General Investigation into allegations that the U.S. Army is violating Section 512 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 2
PTSD and TBI (and/or multiple and cumulative mild TBI’s) are the signature injuries from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, because explosives are the enemy’s weapon of choice. Medical knowledge and a greater understanding of PTSD and TBI have developed as a result of these wars. Research in 2008 found sleep problems and irritability were primary symptoms that overlapped. 3 Common TBI symptoms include substance abuse, sleep problems, headaches, memory loss, loss of focus, anxiety, personality changes, anger, depression and more. 4 PTSD has similar symptoms including anxiety, sleep disorders, trouble concentrating and poor judgment. 5 Approximately 20% of soldiers who develop these conditions subsequently develop a substance abuse disorder. 6 7
Commanders have historically used administrative discharges to separate soldiers prior to their end-of-tour dates for a variety of reasons, o en for “misconduct” and/or medical issues which could be related to PTSD/TBI. In short, it is their way of ring someone. 8 Unfortunately, symptoms like poor judgment, substance abuse, memory loss, personality changes, anxiety, sleep disorders, anger and depression can cause soldiers to stop performing with “acceptable” standards. is clearly has created a problem for commanders and military physicians, because of the possibility that the misconduct is a symptom of an undiagnosed and untreated service connected medical condition. 9 Specifically in cases like that of Specialist Vanderhaeghen who went from being labeled a “superstar,” to a “drug user” in one instant, this could easily and understandably be the case.
Despite 35 years of zero tolerance, in 2012 the Institute of Medicine determined military substance abuse was a public health crisis. 10 Prescription drug abuse soared with a large portion of suicide attempts and deaths involving drugs and alcohol. 11 As a result of the increase in substance abuse, suicide, and high risk behaviors, the Army issued a comprehensive 2010 report emphasizing “the lost art of garrison leadership” which stressed the increasing rates of misconduct were the result of a focus on deployments and missions and ignoring standards. 12 Leaders were encouraged to do more 100% unit wide urine tests, working dog sweeps, and safety inspections, knowing full well a soldier will be administratively discharged over a medical discharge per Army Regulation. 13 Enter the rise of the administrative discharge express lane.
Posts with large combat units like Fort Campbell, Fort Riley, Fort Carson, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and others saw misconduct discharges soar between 2006-2012. 14 Special squads and platoons were put together to quickly discharge soldiers, sometimes in as little as a month. Pressure to downsize the military, discharge non- deployable soldiers, and meet a smaller budget contributed. Fort Campbell’s discharge rate doubled between 2009 and 2012 during the draw down years. Spc. Vanderhaeghen was one of the soldiers who was discharged without a medical evaluation board to determine whether he had a service connected disability.
Attorneys who volunteer with Military Matters have the opportunity to help people who deserve justice but cannot afford it. In this case 4th, 5th, 8th, and 14th amendment challenges occurred. In other cases, the ma er may be as simple as identifying service connected disabilities and facilitating enrollment into the local veterans treatment court. Volunteer attorneys will gain an understanding of the impact military service and especially combat can have on the rights of people who have served. There is no pot of gold at the end of these cases for attorneys trying them; only the satisfaction of helping a soldier finally get justice.
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