Crime and misconduct are growing symptoms of U.S. armed forces dealing with the strain of deployments and a decade of war, said an Augusta lawyer who practices military law.
Also of concern are behavioral issues tied to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, William Cassara said.
“It may not constitute a defense to the offense, but it certainly explains to a degree … what caused an otherwise rational soldier to commit an act of misconduct,” Cassara said.
An extreme example is Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who was on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan in March when he killed 16 Afghan nationals, the Army says. Cassara did not want to comment on a case he is not involved with, but he represented a soldier who pleaded guilty to the murder of an Iraqi civilian. That soldier was on his fourth deployment and was left at an outpost with few visits from command staffers or food and medical supplies.
“By all accounts, they just snapped after that period of time,” Cassara said.
The Army already plans to cut its active-duty force by 80,000 soldiers over the next five years, although that number could hit 100,000 under new budget cuts beginning Jan. 1.
Cassara said it’s becoming clear that one method the Army has for shrinking its force is through an increased number of discharges for misconduct.
When he looks back over the past 10 years, “the standard has changed over time for what will get you kicked out,” Cassara said.
An Army veteran and former attorney for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Cassara practices a branch of law governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The code details crimes and punishment for members of the armed forces and provides protocol for courts-martial.
Cassara divides his practice in thirds: court-martial defense, court-martial appeals and correction of other than honorable discharges. The last is vital because veterans’ eligibility for medical and retirement benefits hinges on their discharge.
Fort Gordon makes part of Cassara’s business, but he regularly travels the U.S. representing service members of all branches.
In some respects, Cassara said, the Uniform Code of Military Justice system is equal to or better than its civilian counterpart. The defense has access to all of the prosecution’s evidence, and service members are guaranteed free representation.
Instead of a jury of peers, though, service members are judged by a panel of five to 12 people of senior ranks. A guilty verdict is reached through a two-thirds consensus instead of a unanimous decision. That the commanding general picks the panel “creates the perception if not the reality that it’s a stacked deck,” Cassara said.
For Cassara, the enjoyment from his work comes from having an other than dishonorable discharge upgraded or restoring the good name of a soldier, Marine or sailor. It also comes from finding hope and justice for service members whose behavior has been changed after combat.
“It’s more and more of my practice every day,” he said.