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The SVA Tackles a Tough Topic at Forum: War Crimes

April 24, 2012

SVA Panel
SVA Panel
SVA Panel
SVA Panel
SVA Panel
SVA Panel

TJSL’s Student Veterans of America organization (SVA) took on a serious and timely topic at a panel discussion on Tuesday, April 24 – the alleged murder of 17 Afghan citizens in a rampage by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.

“This was shocking for a lot of us,” said SVA Vice-President Sarah Stewart-Bussey 3L, an Army Reserve First Lieutenant.  “We aren’t here to discuss whether we should be in Afghanistan or not and we’re not here to bash Sgt. Bales. We are here to discuss whether Sgt. Bales should have immunity or whether he should be prosecuted. And whether there is enough turnabout time between multiple deployments as well as getting psychological care for our troops.”

Bales was in his fourth deployment when the incident happened, according to the moderator, Professor Bill Slomanson, who said “It is perhaps the worst atrocity of the U.S.’s longest war.”

“Suicide rates are going up and there are so many multiple deployments – it’s not surprising that someone would snap,” said panelist Samuel Bettwy, a TJSL adjunct professor and an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel in the JAG Corps.  He doesn’t feel that the Afghans are ready to handle a case like this and that jurisdiction should remain with the United States. “They don’t have a nationwide federal judicial system,” Professor Bettwy said. “I would never entrust the case to their judgment.”

Panelist Professor Steve Berenson, director of TJSL’s Veterans Legal Assistance Clinic, says the clinic’s clients are shifting to younger veterans back from Iraq or Afghanistan and the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD seems “extraordinarily high.” He also cited a Rand Corporation study which found that a third of veterans are suffering from PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury or depression.

Talking about the military’s approach to PTSD, 2L Nicole Heffel, the SVA’s president and a Navy veteran, says she is undergoing PTSD counseling for a non-combat related incident, and feels the Veterans Administration “is extremely supportive and helpful.”

But what about active-duty military?

Heffel feels the military is “brushing it off and not giving it the attention it deserves. The military is not recognizing it – and it’s real.”

“It’s a warrior culture. They want you to suck it up and deal with it,” said Stewart-Bussey. “How do you train them to talk about feelings? Who’s going to say ‘yes, I have an issue?’”

“It’s a career-ender. Nobody talks about it,” said Sara Stark 3L, who is an Air Force Reserve Staff Sergeant. But she questioned the background check on Bales and says there apparently was “some sketchy stuff and red flags.”

Another issue: should the United States apologize to the families of the dead Iraqi civilians?  Opinions differed.

“An apology is warranted, “said 1L Alonso Zavala, a USMC veteran.

“What he did is unacceptable,” said 2L Matt Ferrara, who also feels an apology is in order.

2L Crystal Salumbides, also a veteran, said, “It’s war. But that doesn’t mean our standards should be lowered.”

“I’m very pleased to say the panel was a great success,” said Stewart-Bussey, who leaves for the JAG Corps after she graduates in May.

“Different perspectives were brought to the table- military and civilian – as well as various branches within the military were represented. We had a full room in attendance, but more importantly the participation from both panel and audience members through questions and comments was very meaningful and thoughtful.”