Memorial Day is a solemn, yet special day

Rossmoor resident Dwight Stirling, (left), David and Ivy.

This year will be especially memorable for me as it will mark another milestone along my long journey since the tragic day of September 11, 2001.

Following the shocking attack on our nation, I uprooted my life and joined the Army National Guard. Unlike most who join right out of high school, I was a 32-year-old lawyer when I enlisted in the Armed Forces.

Seeing the nation under attack and its most iconic symbols on fire, I wanted to join the fight for good. And so I went through boot camp and officer candidate school, becoming a lieutenant in the combat arms.

As I progressed as a soldier, the Army asked me to utilize my legal skills. I then switched to Army JAG Corps to become California’s senior military prosecutor, rising to the rank of Major.

During the past 15 years, I have prosecuted more cases of military sexual assault than any other JAG Officer in the California Army National Guard.

It was in this role that I began to understand the destructive nature of a 70-year-old judicial policy called the Feres Doctrine. Created by the Supreme Court in 1950, this doctrine allows members of the chain of command to dismiss cases of sexual assault against the same troops they commanded.

As a result, perpetrators of heinous acts are allowed to mistreat their subordinates with impunity. For me, this is outrageous, something I saw happen time and time again.

Not only does this policy deny justice for victims of military sexual assault, Feres also prevents service members from seeking damages from military doctors when they are impacted by medical malpractice.

This policy so infuriated me that, just like my decision to join the Army after 9/11, I enrolled in a doctoral program at Pepperdine University to study this antiquated law, vowing to somehow make a difference.

One month ago, I was invited by U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier to testify before her subcommittee of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to explain how the U.S. military leadership has taken full advantage of this policy, which many call “judicial legislation.”

I was happy to share with Congress what I have documented in my dissertation; that is, the willingness of the chain of command to deny civil justice to active duty service members and why the Feres Policy so desperately needs to change.

Several former service members also testified how they had been harmed, including a highly decorated Green Beret, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal. Sadly, his military doctors missed his medical diagnosis therefore effectively awarding his valor in battle with a death sentence back home.

Not only was Stayskal brave on the battlefield, but he told members of Congress that his cancer is terminal. “This does affect me but my children are definitely the true victims along with my wife.”

The astonishing reality is that even the inmates in our jails have the right to take their jailers to civil court when mistreated. How we can stand here and do nothing when the bravest among us, those who protect us, are denied this same legal right?

Last year I formed the Center for Law and Military Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Huntington Beach.

I’ve heard from many of you in our community and our military think tank has already received the support from many of our local elected officials. I am truly grateful for the community support and for the national military experts who have joined our effort on an advisory basis.

On Saturday, I graduated from Pepperdine with my doctorate degree, the only scholar in the nation to have studied the Feres Doctrine at the graduate school level. I and will now get on with the business of protecting the legal rights of those who serve our nation in uniform. We will work not just to overturn Feres, but to restore and protect rights across the military spectrum.

Technology and other innovations have changed our military in radical ways. This transformation requires rethinking and reimagining how to protect the legal rights of our active duty service members.

So during this special week, as we begin this new journey, I wanted to thank my family, friends and supporters in our community, and especially those at Joint Forces Training Base, where I worked for many years. Like all of you, we want to ensure that the American military remains the most efficient and well-motivated fighting forces on earth. We will work with the chain of command and the enlisted service members to fix problems and transform policies that time has simply made obsolete.

We can never fully thank those who gave the full measure of devotion to allow us to do our work and live our lives in freedom. They gave up their own right to a full life by fighting and losing their lives in the service of all.

The least we can do is protect the rights of those with the courage to continue to offer themselves to the service of a grateful nation.

This is a Memorial Day I will long remember.

Thank you.

Dr. Dwight Stirling

Founder and CEO

Center for Law and Military Policy

Rossmoor, CA