The Justice Department is stepping up its efforts to address the legal issues troops face on employment protections, voting rights and financial safeguards with the launch of a new "Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative."
"We have brought significant enforcement cases and expect more to come," said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.
Justice officials recently:
• Settled a lawsuit for almost $10 million in relief against a company that allegedly repossessed the cars of more than 1,100 troops.
• Obtained relief for 138 Missouri National Guard dual-status technicians who were allegedly illegally required to leave their civilian positions before being called to Active Guard Reserve status.
• Recovered over $123 million for service members who were the victims of alleged illegal non-judicial foreclosures.
The initiative will be led by three career Justice Department attorneys with strong ties to the military community, including the director, Silas Darden, an Air Force Reserve major, and two assistant directors: Spencer Fisher, a Marine Corps Reserve chief warrant officer, and Andrew Braniff, who works in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division's Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act program.
They will coordinate and expand efforts ongoing in various areas of the Justice Department, as well as work more closely with others across the country, ranging from U.S. attorneys' offices and military attorneys to state attorneys general.
The initiative will focus on case enforcement, service member education and access to justice. Officials will also focus on the unique needs of troops and veterans in the criminal justice system — for example, recognizing that some veterans accused of crimes are also struggling with post-traumatic stress, substance abuse or other mental health problems connected to their military experience.
To increase access to justice for veterans, for example, the department will use grants and other resources to support the efforts of court, law enforcement and other organizations to address circumstances veterans may face in the criminal and civil justice systems.
Justice officials support Veterans' Treatment Courts, which promote sobriety, recovery and stability for veterans who have become involved in the criminal justice system and may be struggling with addiction or mental illness.
Officials will work with U.S. attorneys offices around the country to foster more coordination between those offices and military attorneys and with state attorneys general, Delery said, adding that this collaboration also can also help officials spot problems and trends, and bring issues that Justice officials may need to investigate.
Officials will also work with organizations offering pro bono legal help to service members and veterans, such as the American Bar Association, and seek to increase the number of attorneys willing to volunteer their services.
The effort will include working with the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, including increasing the education and awareness of troops, veterans and families about their rights, and how to report abuse.
Delery said he's had an interest in these issues since he came to the Justice Department. "We're doing a lot of great work, and have a lot of authorities ... but service members and their families face great challenges," he said.
"There's plenty of work to do in all three of these areas" of employment rights, voting rights and financial protections, said retired Navy Capt. Sam Wright, director of the Service Members Law Center at the Reserve Officers Association, who has worked extensively in the areas of voting rights and employment rights for service members.
"Whether it's the Department of Justice, or U.S. attorneys offices, if they're going to take it seriously and move on it — and it sounds like they are — I think that's great," Wright said.
The ultimate goal, Delery said, is to institutionalize this effort within the Justice Department so it lasts beyond the Obama administration.
"Our hope is that we will not only expand and increase the effort, but hope the knowledge and expertise we gain will remain in the future," he said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.