Grievances: Congressional Assistance
Every member of the military has the right to communicate individually with any member of Congress for any reason. Though service members 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 inquire about an injustice or issue that seems unfair.
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 service member. Congressional inquiries often make sense as companions to formal military complaint procedures.
The military’s response to a Congressional inquiry can depend on the attitude, experience, and dedication of the Congressional caseworker. It is often most effective if the servicemember meets directly with the caseworker (live or by phone) and also writes out the specific facts and questions to include in the inquiry. Expecting the caseworker to formutlate the proper questions can lead to vagueness about the issue that is to be addressed. Caseworkers contact the military on behalf of a service member and ask for an explanation of the military’s actions. A standard Congressional inquiry consists of a cover letter and a copy of the service member’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’sresponse to the member and assumes that this concludes the inquiry. While this may signal to the command that there is Congressional interest in the case which may be helpful, it still may not sufficiently resolve the issue. In such cases when the issue is clearly not resolved and the response the military gives does not address the injustice, the service member may wish to follow up and ask the staffperson to submit a follow up inquiry explaining the specific areas that were not addressed in the earlier response.
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. The caseworker will sometimes 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 Congress member’s power specifically to direct the military is limited
To receive assistance from a Congressional caseworker, the service member can begin by contacting the congressional office. Normally it is effective if the service member follows with a written or email request that includes their full name, Social Security number, assignment and rank, address, and a phone number where the service member (or counselor) can be contacted, as well as a summary of the issue to be addressed with any important documentation attached.
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).
In presenting the issue to the caseworker, you can explain the problem and state what remedy is desired. 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 someone's motivation. For example, simply saying that someone in your specific command has it in for you or is racist is not convincing without evidence, even if it happens to be true. 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 Rights 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.
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. Service members 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 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.
Find your Congressmenber
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.
The Capitol switchboard, at (202) 224-3121 or (800) 972-3524, can also identify a service member’s member of Congress and connect callers to the member’s office. Many caseworkers work at local district offices, which are usually listed at the bottom of the Congressmembers homepage. District office telephone numbers can also be obtained from 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 more effective 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. Basing the grievance on facts is also typically more effective than basing it on opinions or conjecture. Congressional military caseworkers have varying degrees of GI rights advocacy experience and have other responsibilities. It is important to stay in touch with them.