In our democracy, it may seem like the US military and the US Congress have very little to do with each other. But when it comes to resolving troublesome situations with your command, a little Congressional oversight can sometimes go a long way. It may not seem like your Congressional representatives have the power to govern the military, but ultimately Congress can play a significant role in holding the military accountable to its own laws and regulations. After all, the code that military regulations are based on comes from the laws passed by Congress. You have the right under federal law to contact your Congressperson for assistance in peronal military matters. Contacting a Congressperson is protected communication, which means that no one is allowed to punish you or otherwise retaliate against you for contacting Congress for assistance.
Asking for Assistance:
As a military member, you may face situations where your command is not following regulations or is otherwise violating your rights. You have several options for making complaints and seeking help. One option is to contact your local Congressional office for assistance.
The US Congress is made up of two governing bodies: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each person in the US lives in a state with two Senators and belongs to a Congressional district represented by one representative in the House (unless you live in Washington, D.C. Puerto Rico, or other US territory--more on these areas later). Each of these Congressional members has a staff person or military liaison working in their office--someone who, at the servicemember's request, can contact the military on your behalf to try to seek resolution to a conflict.
As a service member, you can choose which senator or representative to approach for help, but usually they should be from your home of record (i.e. you are their constituent and they are accountable to you, the voter). Sometimes servicemembers consider the place they are stationed their home. Others think of where they are stationed as a temporary residence and think of where they lived before as their home of record. As long as you can give a specific address in the state or district, either option can work.
It can be helpful to interview the staffer or military liaison of more than one Congressperson before deciding which office to retain for assistance. Different Congresspeople have different strengths, and so do their liaisons. You can also check your senators' or representative's committee assignments to see if they work on military issues, which can be helpful but not imperative. More important is the liaison's experience with helping servicemembers and their attitude about how they can help you. If a congressperson has just recently been elected for the first time, their staff may have less experience.
What Congressional offices can and cannot do:
A senator or representative can submit an inquiry about your situation to the military and ask them to respond. When you contact your Congressional office, they usually ask you to sign a privacy release form that gives them permission to contact the military on your behalf. They also often ask you to summarize in writing the nature of the problem you are having and the help you are seeking. It can be helpful to make sure the Congressperson knows the history of your service (number of years in, deployments, injuries, etc.). Because the inquiry submitted to the command is usually based heavily on the written information you submit to the Congressional office, it is worth taking your time to explain carefully the details of your case, the regulations you feel are being violated, and specifically the outcome you would like. Documenting your case can be very important. For example, accurate medical records (civilian or military), copies of profiles, counselings, or correspondence with the command can help the Congressional staffer understand your issues, as well as give them something to ask that the command address directly. In preparing for an inquiry it is normally most effective to stick to verifyable facts as opposed to conjecture about someones motivation. For example saying that the command has it in for you or is racist is not a verifyable fact even if it may be true. Clearly, demonstrating that the command has not treated you equally with witness statements, counselings and other concrete details can make a much stronger case. The GI Right Hotline can help you document your case. And if you don't feel that the Congressional liaison has a good grasp of your situation, you can give them permission to talk to a GI Rights counselor who can explain the issues involved.
Your Congressional office can not usually contact the command directly. They submit their request to the command through a Pentagon liaison. Although the Congressional office usually gives the command 30 days to respond, the command receives the request from the Congressional office within a few days of their submitting the request. Once this initial contact has been made, you may start to see your situation change, even before the inquiry is completed and a report made back to the Congressional office.
Your senator or representative can ask the command to explain the reasons for the actions they have been taking and the basis for those actions as found in the regulations. They can also request that the command take certain action (such as move someone to a new command, honor a soldier's profile, expedite an action, or investigate allegations of abuse and report on their findings.) Some Congressional liaisons may deny that they have any authority over a command. However, many liaisons will advocate for the service member and push the command to accountability.
Your Congressional representative can follow up with the command. Sometimes the answer the command gives to a Congressional inquiry does not jive with the servicemember's experience. The Congressperson can submit a follow-up request, pointing out any descrepancies and request further clarification. If a command has not adequately explained or justified the action they are taking toward an individual, important follow-up questions can be: What authority are you using to support the actions you are taking regarding this servicemember; or, What authority are you using to override the regulations we are citing that seem to govern this situation?
Note: Because Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico are not states, thier residents have no voting representation in Congress. However, D.C. residents can contact their non-voting delegate, and Puerto Rico residents can contact their Resident Commissioner to the House of Respresentatives for assistance.
We have seen Congressional inquiries produce many successful results, including ensuring that wounded service members get proper consideration by the disability evaluation system, tracking discharge packets, expediting hardship applications, correcting misunderstandings of commuting distance regulations, investigating racial discrimination, and resolving other situations where the military is not following its own regulations. For more information about this process, contact the GI Rights Hotline.