When Brandon Heffinger was a student at Wake Forest School of Law and a reserve company commander with Third Battalion, 25th Marines, he noticed an uptick in Marines, many of them combat veterans, who were facing legal problems and being discharged under less-than-honorable conditions.
And for the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who have received these types of discharges, often for minor offenses, they are not only scarred by war, but branded for life. Like a felony conviction, the nature of their discharge can follow them forever, often precluding them from getting government jobs and benefits.
So, Heffinger, also a combat veteran himself, began a quest to help veterans of all branches. He worked with law firms and the North Carolina State Bar’s Legal Assistance for Military Personnel program to gain client referrals, and in 2015 formed the Wake Forest Legal Clinic to provide pro bono legal representation for veterans seeking to upgrade their discharges to reflect that they served honorably.
“I thought that there should be a broader array of services for veterans when their legal issues stemmed from their service,” Heffinger said. “From joblessness to homelessness, suicide, and substance abuse, many times it can lead back to the character of their discharge.”
The war at home
When veterans return from combat, they often bring the war home with them. Many have seen human beings—including those they fought beside—maimed or killed. Many have been injured themselves. They have been exposed to perhaps the worst environments one can imagine and they are changed forever.
The mental health disorders that some veterans develop while serving their country often affect them in such a way that they begin acting out of character. Manifestations can include self-harm, failure to show up for military duties, aggressive or insubordinate behavior, or self-medication with drugs or alcohol, and the consequences can include a wide range of sanctions under military law, including separation from the armed services.
For five years Heffinger worked with Chris Geis, an attorney with Womble Bond Dickinson and an adjunct law professor, naval officer, and former Judge Advocate General. The pair, along with law students under their supervision, met with clients, counseled them, built their cases, and prepared compelling briefs asking military discharge review boards to set aside the negative discharges. The boards, made up of senior military officers and civilians appointed by the branches’ respective secretaries, consider the servicemembers’ military records and their conduct and accomplishments since being discharged.
Geis also once served as an appellate defense attorney and recalled one client, a Marine who returned from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury and a body full of shrapnel. He took doctor-prescribed oxycodone, an opioid, to manage his pain, and soon became addicted. He sold his pills to get money for more pills, until one day he sold to an undercover Naval Investigative Service agent.
“He got discharged with a [bad conduct discharge],” “And I thought this is the exact type of guy who doesn’t deserve a BCD,” Geis said. “Somebody’s who’s been asked to do the absolute hardest thing possible for their country, and they shouldn’t have to come back and for minor misconduct and suffer for life because … they did something dumb and got a bad discharge.”
The Marine’s discharge was eventually vacated in a process similar to the civilian processes of completing probation, being pardoned, or having a record expunged. But there are still thousands of injured war veterans who Heffinger and Geis believe have earned the right to say that they served their country honorably.
“We’ve had people who served valorously … who had Bronze Stars and who have seen comrades killed or maimed or shot,” Geis said. “They’d come back and start drinking or doing drugs to cope and things spiraled out of control.”