Op-Ed: Ensuring the Legal Rights of Service Members
Active duty soldiers and sailors, reservists and the National Guard are the front-line defenders of our country in the global war on terror. They represent the face of democracy in faraway lands. Yet too often, on the home front, they find that their legal rights have been diminished as a result of their military service.
There must be a clear understanding of the legal safeguards provided to service members and a frank assessment of what remains to be accomplished so that our country can ensure the best protections possible for those who so valiantly serve our country. Continuing its long-standing commitment to military personnel, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel appointed a Working Group to examine the current laws as they relate to the men and women serving in our military, and to recommend new safeguards and legal protections.
The Working Group’s report, which has just been released, examines a number of critical areas, including family support, child custody, housing, tax laws, tuition benefits, and voting and employment rights. The Working Group determined that service members many times encounter undue inequities and challenges to their and their families’ well-being, and that many of the problems stem from the frequent relocation that military service demands, as well as from the prolonged periods of absence that duty in the reserves and guard requires.
The report makes apparent that there is a critical lack of consistency among the states in the laws and regulations that have an impact on service members and their families. In order for them to really focus on their work of defending our country, they need a level of predictability at home, whether the question is about reemployment upon return from military duty, qualifying for in-state tuition rates, or being able to break a lease because of military relocation, even if a spouse is included on the lease.
An important step toward improving the consistency of states’ laws is encouraging them to use the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act as a threshold for legal protections. The act contains many federal protections for service members, in areas as diverse as credit issues, real property, and guardianship issues, but there are big differences in the type and level of protections that are provided by the different states.
For example, in most states National Guard members and their families receive no SCRA protections when they are performing state duties—in fact, fewer than 15 states provide such protections. These responsibilities can range from providing natural disaster relief, as in the case of the recent hurricanes that have besieged Florida; to pre-mobilization training; to providing security during special state events, such as public appearances by dignitaries and our nation’s leaders. These men and women, as well as their families, are vulnerable during periods of extended state active duty or training, and can often find themselves at a special disadvantage when it comes to domestic relations, creditor-debtor and landlord-tenant civil proceedings.
The shape and face of our country’s military have undergone tremendous change in the past several years, as have the challenges and threats that those in the military must meet. It is incumbent on the legal and business communities, government and lawmakers to work together to make improvements to the legal safeguards for those who serve in the military, which will keep pace with their needs and circumstances. Our service members protect the freedom and security we, as Americans, hold dear. Our nation’s laws should do no less in protecting their and their families’ rights and peace of mind.