By Don KramerFebruary 9, 2009
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Wounded warriors' legal issues, particularly as Soldiers navigate the thorny medical-evaluation-board and physical-evaluation-board processes, are always on the mind of the Army Judge Advocate General, Lt. Gen. Scott C. Black said during a recent visit to Fort Lewis.
"I can tell you that our Secretary of the Army and our Chief of Staff of the Army, my principal clients at the Pentagon, are focused and directed when making sure we're taking care of our wounded troopers," Black said.
"Our Army has made extraordinary strides in terms of taking care of our wounded warriors."
The Army leadership team receives regular updates and brings in the principal staff biweekly to discuss the needs, support, shortfalls and issues in the warrior transition units, he said. Substantial resources are dedicated to resolving problems for individual wounded Soldiers, the Army's top attorney said, and he is certain the added manpower is making a difference.
When the war on terrorism began seven years ago, the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps was devoting seven attorneys to stewarding Soldiers through the MEB and PEB processes across the Army.
"We weren't doing as good a job as we could have," Black said.
Today there are 30 for the MEB process alone and another 16 engaged in the PEB process, 46 now doing what seven did previously. Black said the upgrade came in impressive talent and capability as well as numbers.
"The WTU here is terrific as a great example," Black said. "We've put an attorney and a paralegal into every WTU. Their sole purpose in life is to help the Soldier. They're not there to take care of the commander's contracting issues. There are other attorneys and paralegals who do that. They are there to do nothing but make sure that every single issue that a wounded trooper has, who is a member of that unit, is taken care of."
Black took time during his visit two weeks ago to receive briefings at Fort Lewis' Warrior Transition Battalion and meet the new legal team there.
"Essentially, we are here to assist Soldiers who are assigned to the WTB and are going through the MEB process," said Christine Connolly, MEB outreach counsel at the Fort Lewis WTB, "while our main focus is the MEB and informal PEB, we can also provide legal-assistance advice."
Wounded Soldiers assigned to the WTB can get rapid answers to questions or experienced advice for their progress through the medical system from legal personnel without the distraction of other case loads.
Connolly said she and the paralegal assigned to the Fort Lewis WTB, Gavin Phillips, form the classic attorney-client relationship with individual Soldiers who seek them out, ensuring confidential communication between them that can only be divulged with the express permission of the Soldier-client.
Beyond convenient legal counsel, Fort Lewis Soldiers have another advantage over many at other installations.
"If ultimately a Soldier chooses to elect a formal PEB hearing after the MEB and informal PEB, we are lucky that one of the three sitting PEBs in the Army is located right here at Fort Lewis," Connolly said. "This allows us to coordinate with an attorney with the Office of Soldiers' Counsel, run by attorney Steven Engle, to ensure a smooth transition in representation before the board."
Engle comes with praise from the highest Army level - the TJAG himself.
"You have a particularly robust organization here," Black said. "Steve Engle is one of the best in the business, period. In terms of taking care of Soldiers and representing their interests before the PEBs and MEBs, he's one of the best. I've known Steve for a lot of years in other capacities. Steve is one of those guys, when a father or a mother calls me with concerns, I call Steve and ask him to take it on. He's that good. So Fort Lewis in particular has unbelievable talent."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.