Grievances: Congressional Assistance
Every member of the military has the right to communicate individually with any member of Congress for any reason. Though servicemembers may be told otherwise, commands cannot limit this right or require prior notice or approval. However, the right to circulate a petition to Congress is heavily limited, particularly if the petition concerns conditions of military service or a war, or if the servicemember is stationed overseas.
There is no formal process for redressing a grievance that must be followed and no definition of what constitutes a grievance. A servicemember can ask that a member of Congress look into the reasons why a discharge request is not being processed in a timely manner or alert the Member to an Inspector General complaint that has been filed.
Congressional inquiries work best when the command’s position is weak or embarrassing, especially where available documentary evidence of an error is strong and blame cannot be shifted to the servicemember. Congressional inquiries often make sense as companions to formal military complaint procedures.
The military’s response to a Congressional inquiry depends very much on the attitude, experience, and dedication of the Congressional caseworker. Caseworkers contact the military on behalf of a servicemember and ask for an explanation of the military’s actions. A standard Congressional inquiry consists of a cover letter and a copy of the servicemember’s letter, which is forwarded to the appropriate Service’s legislative liaison office. The legislative liaison forwards the letter to the proper command, who respond with a justification of their actions. The command’s response is forwarded to the caseworker by the legislative liaison.
Often, the caseworker simply forwards the military’s explanation to the member, assumes that this concludes the inquiry, and takes no further action. Such a standard inquiry simply signals the local command that there is Congressional interest in the case. This can be helpful; noting on correspondence with the military that a copy is going to a Congressional office can further highlight this.
Ideally, the caseworker will write a more detailed letter in place of the standard inquiry letter to argue specific points or convey that the Member of Congress has a special interest in a case. A caseworker may recommend special consideration in a case, demand further justification of actions, initiate investigations, and obtain information on the status of, and official intentions in, a case. Such a letter can result in a more thorough investigation by the military. The caseworker can also call a unit or base commander, base legal officer, or a Pentagon contact to express urgency or special interest in the case. However, a Member’s only direct power over the military is through votes on legislation and, although a Congressional office’s active involvement can be invaluable, caseworkers cannot order the military to take certain actions.
To receive assistance from a Congressional caseworker, the servicemember should send a written request with their full name, Social Security number, assignment and rank, address, and a phone number where the servicemember (or counselor) can be contacted.
Members of Congress generally assist only their own constituents and require a home or permanent address that falls within their district. Some caseworkers will take cases out-of-district if:
- A servicemember complains that his or her own Congress member has not helped.
- The case is of such political significance that many Congress members may work together.
- The issue is one that the Congress member is especially interested in (racism, sexual harassment, or military prisons, for example).
Explain the problem and state what remedy is desired. Include copies of documentation provided to the command and any correspondence with the command. Beware of including incriminating evidence, as the letter will probably be forwarded to the military. Servicemembers may decide to provide sensitive information if the caseworker agrees not to forward that information to the military, or agrees to wait until a later date.
The caseworker may be convinced to take more extraordinary steps than the standard inquiry if convinced, by the servicemember or a counselor, that the grievance is strong, that the military is violating its own regulations, or that the military has not been honest in its response to the original inquiry. It helps a great deal if the member or counselor works closely with the caseworker, keeping the caseworker up-to-date and pointing out any erroneous or false information the military provides to the caseworker.
Members of the House of Representatives are more suited to handling constituent complaints. The Capitol switchboard, at (202) 224-3121 or (800) 972-3524, can identify a servicemember’s Member of Congress and connect callers to the Member’s office. Servicemembers with access to the World Wide Web can find out who their Member of Congress is at www.votesmart.org. Many caseworkers work at local district offices. District office telephone numbers can be obtained from the votesmart website, the Washington, DC office or through the local phone book government pages.
Congressional pressure is most effective when military regulations and established procedures are not being followed. It is better to ask a Congressional caseworker to make inquiries for specific information or to redress a particular violation of regulations than to make general requests for help. Congressional military caseworkers have varying degrees of GI rights advocacy experience and have other responsibilities. It is important to stay in touch with them.