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Veterans' Day Melancholy

November 15, 2011 | Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Grimes

I went into this Veterans' Day weekend watching a Soldier being found guilty for murdering three Afghan civilians while deployed last year.  Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was charged with being the ring leader in what the media has dubbed a rogue 'kill squad.'  The defense of these Soldiers at trial fell to the Army's Trial Defense Service and a collection of civilian attorneys who took on these cases.  I wish I'd had a more significant role in preparing these cases, but the reality is that I saw these cases more from the sidelines than from the bench.  (Mind you, I had seats at the 50, but these were not my cases or my clients.)    

One of the interesting things about working in TDS - and I think I've mentioned it before - is that our clients are generally good people.  They might have been charged with, and in some cases have actually done, some pretty bad things, but at heart they are respectable Americans who have taken up the task of defending our nation and our way of life.

I know a lot of folks are going to take issue with that statement, but I stand by it.  But I have to admit that it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, being so willing (and able) to separate the person (the Soldier) from the conduct.  I've decided, though, that this discomfort is necessary to protect our military justice system.  If we move too quickly to punish those who commit misdeeds, without taking into account the circumstances surrounding their actions, the psychology and stress that might contribute, and their positive contributions, we do a disservice to a system we prize as being fair and balanced.  

This is especially true for our Soldier-clients, who on average have made 2 or 3 trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, have seen war and been asked to take on hard missions in hard circumstances, away from their families.  The juxtaposition of Veterans' Day against SSG Gibbs trial was disconcerting.  It reminded me of the toll our long wars have taken.  This is not to say that SSG Gibbs was faultless; a military panel (jury) found him guilty if all charges.  But I wonder how different his life might have been with one fewer deployment to war?    

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