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Why Civil Rights Lawyers Should Honor Veterans

On this Veterans Day, with a deeply divided country, I find myself reflecting on another divide: military service and our civil society.  When I was in college, this divide prompted me to join the Navy, exploring how to bridge the chasm between my liberal, ivy-league world and the military that many people I knew looked down on.  The military-civilian divide has increased, and remains an issue worrying to the right and the left.[1]  I continue to see this divide in the legal world, and particularly in my field of civil and disability rights.

The Veterans Movement is for everyone.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)

The relationship between civil rights advocates and veterans is uneasy.  Navigating the legal world, I’ve faced questions that range from puzzled to hostile about my military background.  Speaking with veterans, I’ve faced skepticism about the law, particularly my branch of it.  As one study notes, military culture tends to include values like discipline, teamwork, and hierarchy—concepts that can clash with the liberal civil rights lawyer’s world of individualism and independence. 

The divide goes deeper, to the very substance of the legal system for veterans and military issues.  Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie argues that veterans’ rights have been relegated to a “legal backwater”.  He notes that legal claims ranging from disability benefits to employment discrimination are subject to separate systems for servicemembers and veterans, with few lawyers involved or available.

Veterans are more likely to be disabled, yet often find disability rights law unhelpful.  War journalist Sebastian Junger, for example, claims that the rise of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnoses for veterans has been harmful and pathologizing.  It is, he argues, society that needs to adapt to create a place for our warriors to return and heal, not our warriors who need to overcome a “disorder.”[2] 

Substantial Rights but Lingering Skepticism

Ironically, Junger’s observation is resonant with core disability rights principles, including the social model of disability.  Leading disability advocacy groups, such as United Spinal, began with veterans.  Founded by World War II veterans, United Spinal (then Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association) went on to advocate for civil rights laws for people with disabilities, and to use those laws in cases like one challenging the inaccessibility of public transportation.[3]  

Much has changed since United Spinal and others fought for basic legal protections.  Veterans have an array of laws protecting their rights at work, in housing, and in public accommodations—for example federal employment laws and the New York City Human Rights Law.  Yet I find veterans and mainstream veterans’ groups today often remain skeptical about bringing lawsuits under these laws.

A Broader Vision

Junger’s critique of disability labels for veterans also has parallels to the broader concept of disability justice, a term coined by a new generation of advocates who criticize disability rights as too focused on white people with mobility disabilities and a narrow “disabled” identity and rights demand.  Like veterans’ groups, disability justice advocates sound a note of caution about litigation, which by its nature tends to have a restricted scope.  Military veterans and radical communities of color might seem to have little in common, yet they are both telling us that we need a broader and more collective understanding of the society we are working to achieve. 

Perhaps there is a lesson in this convergence.  I remain convinced, from what I have seen over the years, that litigation can be a useful tool.  But ivy-league civil rights lawyers need to listen and consider other perspectives in deciding whether and how to use it.    

[1] See, e.g. Rachel Maddow, Drift  (2012); James Jay Carafano, Heritage Foundation, Memo to the President: How to Transform Civil-Military Relations (Apr. 29, 2015),; Diane H. Mazur, A More Perfect Military (2010); Thomas S. Szayna et al., RAND Corp., The Civil-Military Gap in the United States (2007),

[2] Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016).

[3] United Spinal Association, (visited Nov. 11, 2020).