Sunday, September 27, 2015
In our work with clients and students, there are many moments that make an indelible impression on us, as attorneys and counselors, as teachers, as human beings. Usually, when these moments occur, I am overwhelmed with both the honor it is to do the work we do, and the gravity of that work, on behalf of our clients and our students.
For those of us working in a clinic that provides direct representation to clients, we are working with people who are facing challenges that to them, seem insurmountable, and often involve traumatic events, victimization, and marginalization. The liberty and happiness many of us take for granted are habitually at risk for such clients, and the impact of our work can be monumental to them, their families, and ultimately as a result, their communities.
Some of the work the Puller Clinic does is with victims of military sexual trauma (MST), for both veterans and active duty service members. The former are typically seeking disability compensation and health benefits, the latter are often facing an unwanted and typically unwarranted separation based on symptomology resulting from the MST. There are more of these cases than one would expect, and it is heartbreaking to not only learn the details of the underlying assault and the herculean efforts at overcoming that trauma, but also the re-victimization during continued service or the compensation and separation processes. Not surprisingly, the MST can cause paranoia, fear, guilt, hopelessness and deep-seated distrust as a result of an attack by a brother- or sister-in-arms. In discussing an MST with a client who previously served as a paratrooper and asking the requisite question of whether she reported it to anyone else, she responded, “No, they packed my chute.” That was one of those moments that made an indelible impression on me as an attorney – when those who have “got your six,” or are supposed to, are the same ones who engaged in or were complicit during or after the commission of an MST, how does one come back from that deep betrayal without long-term emotional and psychological consequences?
A student and I recently interviewed a victim of continued harassment, bullying and MST that occurred during service. This repeated victimization has left her, by her own admission, paranoid, devoid of any trust, struggling to get through each day, and desperate for some assistance. After she recounted her experiences over the course of several hours she thanked us and said she felt a lot better already. She said she had felt hopeless with nowhere to turn, but that we “are part of the light.” It is a humbling and sobering experience to play that role in someone’s life, but it also left me feeling so grateful that in addition to training the next generation of lawyers, clinicians still get to be “part of the light” for clients every day. We have the best job ever – we get to teach, but we also get to continue to serve.
Finally, at this point in the semester, it may feel overwhelming with classes, cases, and the myriad of other responsibilities we each have at our institutions and beyond, but I leave you with this reminder from the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, about the efforts of the CIA to capture Osama bin Laden. As the CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain notes, “I want to make something absolutely clear. If you thought there was some secret cell somewhere working al-Qaeda, I want you to know that you are wrong! This is it. There's no working group coming to the rescue. There's nobody else hidden away on some other floor.” The work we do with our students is important, as is the lesson they should leave with; we do what we do because for the clients we represent, and the thousands of others we wish we could, “there is no one else.” So take care of yourselves as best you can, because your students and your clients need you.