Military Discharge Characterizations define which VA benefits veterans and their families receive. Access to these promised benefits is a matter of justice.
In January 2020, TLSC Managing Attorney Julian Honor provided a one-hour presentation entitled “Discharge Upgrades and Correction of Military Records” for international law firm Vinson & Elkins. Maddison Riddick and Marcus Martinez attended.
"We sat next to each other at Julian's training session. We just looked at each other like, 'Do you want to do one of these?'” reminisced Marcus. "It gave us a chance to work together when we otherwise might not have that opportunity."
A Shared Interest in Helping a Vet
Maddison’s father was her inspiration for taking on a pro bono case. “My dad was in the Army for a long time, and then he was in the National Guard pretty much throughout my life,” she said. When she told him about the opportunity to work on the case he was very supportive. “I think he thought it was pretty cool that I even had the chance to do something like this.”
Marcus also has a brother-in-law who is currently serving in the army. “I think that is part of what drew me to it,” Marcus said. “I also have to say Julian is just a great presenter. He was inspiring and I thought it would be a great opportunity. This is the first time I have participated in any kind of services specifically for veterans, and I have to say it was in part due to his excellent pitch for the project. It was really rooted in a form of justice — racial justice. I think disproportionately, individuals who are black or brown will suffer these categorizations. And the consequences are huge. If this is one piece of the puzzle that can connect veterans to services, connect them to better resources, then I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Maddison and Marcus are Assigned a Case
After receiving the background information, documentation, and contact information, Marcus noticed something.
“The thing that was most striking, comforting and just reassured me that I took on the right case was when I saw that our client's phone number began with an area code from the Rio Grande Valley. That's where I grew up,” Marcus said. “It turns out our client, Mr. U, grew up in a neighboring city from my own. He sounded like a cousin, he just sounded like somebody I knew. And that was, like I said, both comforting and reassuring that I jumped on the right opportunity.”
Maddison has had a long-time commitment to veterans causes, which she attributes to her father's extensive service. She even turned to her father with questions throughout the case. "I've asked my dad, 'What does this acronym mean?' from a statement. That was a really nice resource honestly." Marcus also appreciated Maddison's family's military service, explaining, "She helped me think through some of the more military-bent/Army-bent aspects. She's heard more about these cases and issues having talked to her father."
Maddison and Marcus Meet ‘Mr. U’
Both Marcus and Maddison brought their own cultural understandings into that first call. Maddison knew that speaking to veterans about their experiences can bring up a lot of trauma. Marcus knew the cultural magnitude for seeking legal help in the first place: "There’s the understanding that this is no small deal. Nobody from my community really wants to talk to a lawyer. It's not a sign of anything good most times, or it's at least going to be a hardship or conflict that you're trying to work through."
Getting to Know Their Client
“As first years we're not getting tons of client interaction,” said Maddison, “So it's been really great to be able to work with Mr. U directly. And he's also the nicest man. I can't even explain it to you. He's always so thankful and we're thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope this works out.’ Every time we’ve needed something, he was very responsive and did a great job. He was also very open and vulnerable with us. It helped us build a good connection really early on.”
Mr. U's Military History
Mr. U joined the Army in late 2000 and was assigned to Fort Hood as an automated logistical specialist but was then deployed to a dangerous area in Iraq. While in Iraq, Mr. U was exposed to numerous traumatic events, such as losing fellow soldiers and experiencing a gruesome attack on his convoy that killed 15 people, including a child.
While deployed, Mr. U was allowed to return home for the birth of his daughter. After two weeks of leave, he returned to Iraq. Nine days after his return to Baghdad, his wife was killed in a car accident. Mr. U completed his deployment while his newborn child was cared for by her grandmother.
After he finished his deployment, Mr. U was stationed four hours from where his infant child was living. This emotional struggle combined with the extreme stress from combat and the loss of his wife led him to seek help from a psychiatrist. It was a negative and unproductive experience — Mr. U never sought military psychiatric help again.
His next two years of service were a blur. Dread, hate, anger, and anxiety followed him. He began reliving his deployment and the associated trauma. The fear of redeployment and leaving his daughter led Mr. U to purposely commit an infraction that would relieve him from any future service. This action led to his Other Than Honorable Discharge in 2005.
In 2019, Mr. U reached out to Texas Legal Services Center to explore options for appealing his discharge characterization.
Mr. U came to the discussion well-researched. He knew the appeal process but had never committed to it. He was invested in getting it done and was eager to partner with Maddison and Marcus. “Veterans are ready to stand up for themselves; there's a self-advocacy that's very unique to that group. It's good that they have the strength to do that because it's definitely needed. If they're not advocating for themselves, it's very hard for us too.”
Maddison and Marcus decided to petition that Mr. U's discharge characterization didnot take into account his service-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — especially in light of his otherwise faithful service.
But there was something bigger behind the discharge upgrade. "Yes, there was the gaining access to VA benefits portion," says Maddison. "But I think the biggest thing is he feels like he was a good soldier and his service was ruined in the end. He doesn't deserve to have that black mark on his record forever — it's not an accurate representation of his service. I can understand that he feels it is unjust having an Other Than Honorable Discharge."
Now We Wait
Maddison and Marcus submitted Mr. U’s application to the Discharge Review Board in July 2020. "Typically it's 18 months once we’ve submitted the application. But due to staffing and disruptions because of COVID-19, we got the notice that it could be up to two years," explained Marcus.
Pro Bono Builds Relationships
Maddison shared that she felt like a part of the TLSC team. “I never really felt like we were just out to sea. Julian gave us great guidance and was always very responsive. I never felt unsupported with the things I didn't know how to do."
She also really enjoyed having the opportunity to partner with another attorney at her firm. “This is the first [pro bono case] that Marcus and I have done together, but at the firm it's pretty normal for people to team up on pro bono projects like this. It's really good for us because when one of us gets busy, the other one takes over for a while. It worked out really well for our schedules and it's been great to get to know Marcus doing this together too. We started at the same time in the same class, and so it was really nice to collaborate like that.”
Pro Bono Means a Lot... to More than Just the Client
As Marcus reflected on the experience, he shared that "It's important to work alongside those who have not had the same experiences that you have had. And any chance to use that opportunity for good, jump on it. It means a lot to me to work alongside somebody who grew up where I grew up... to connect him with something that he needed and use what I have been given the privilege to learn.
Working with our client was just honestly... it brought me back home sometimes. And it was really enjoyable to hear from him and get a feeling for where he was at and see what I could do to ensure that he gets what he is seeking. You don't get that anywhere else. You get that by helping out with TLSC or with any other pro bono legal organization.”