The National Guard holds a unique place in the US military apparatus. As an extension to the already all-volunteer military, members of the National Guard not only serve their country in uniform, the majority also hold regular jobs. Such is the case for Jesse Miller, a partner in the San Francisco office of Reed Smith, and a decorated colonel in the California Army National Guard.
Members of the armed forces of the United States swear an oath to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Through his work with Reed Smith’s RS Vets initiative, Miller aims to in turn support and defend those who serve the US. RS Vets is a 75-person group formed in 2017 within the firm to bring together attorneys and staff who have served in the military, have family or friends who have served, or who share an interest in supporting veterans’ causes.
RS Vets is part of Reed Smith’s global effort to enhance and promote diversity and inclusion while aiding veterans who may be in need of legal help. For Reed Smith, the focus on diversity encompasses not only important factors such as protected classes of people, but also how individuals contribute their backgrounds and experiences to both the workplace and their broader communities.
“Veterans are a natural fit within our diversity initiatives,” says Miller, adding military veterans represent a very small segment of the population because only a very small percentage of Americans have served in the military — and within law firms, that number is even smaller. “And within the veteran population itself there’s tremendous diversity in the way we more traditionally think of diversity, and largely in ways that reflect trends in the broader society.”
Being part of a unique population, however, creates a unique set of challenges. First, there are legal channels to navigate for members of the National Guard, active duty military and various groups of veterans, in order to access services of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Beyond that, there lies a potentially daunting maze of challenges such as disability ratings from the Department of Veterans Affairs, access to healthcare and mental health services, recognition of conditions incurred during service such as post-traumatic stress, medical reviews for potential discharge from service, military retirement and severance, as well as nonmilitary issues like re-employment rights for service members returning from deployment. “Because it’s such a small segment, most companies don’t face military re-employment and re-integration issues on a regular basis, while certain companies address them regularly, such as Verizon and General Electric,” explains Miller. “On the positive side, the vast majority of employers want to support veterans, it’s really just a question of how to navigate the system.”
Both the breadth and depth of potential legal hurdles confronting veterans and service members create a very demanding and highly specialized field of legal service offerings. “It can be cost-prohibitive for a veteran to hire a lawyer to help them navigate the VA system,” says Miller. “Some do, and getting access to large global firms to help with cases is something that has blossomed in the years following 9/11.”
Relatively few attorneys specialize in veterans’ service practice, and many of those who do, like Miller, are either current or former service members themselves.
This, in turn, can create additional layers of challenges for veterans seeking experienced legal counsel; the available counsel themselves might be active in the military and therefore subject to being called to action. For example, even as he works at Reed Smith as a partner and chairs the RS Vets program, at the time we interviewed Col. Miller, he had just completed a 15-day deployment as part of a state activation of the National Guard in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He then was immediately reassigned as a Deputy Commander in California’s Joint Task Force/Domestic Support to begin a 90-day deployment as part of the state’s broader humanitarian assistance missions.
President Trump authorized the National Guard in California to serve under Title 32 of the U.S. Code in order to support the state’s COVID-19 response efforts, which puts Guard members under the direction of the governor — giving the state greater control over how the Guard members are employed with the federal government covering the cost of eligible activities.
Veterans may face an added challenge that the experienced counsel they seek might themselves be active in the military and therefore subject to being called to action.
As the summer passed, Miller’s deployment was extended as the country grappled with civil unrest and then an outbreak of devastating wildfires in California. As a result, Col. Miller remains on duty.
While all of American society has had to come to grips with the shifting realities of the pandemic and areas of civil unrest within the US, service members have experienced a compounding strain. They not only must follow their orders and deployment, but they also must determine how to best confront these challenges as part of their personal lives. They have, in many cases, been tasked with serving as first responders to many of these situations.
This ultimately will create an even greater set of legal issues for service members, Miller says, adding that “we may not see the tail of this for quite some time, as issues related to long-term health risks and employment may take a while to fully come to light.”
One thing that is certain, however, is that demand for legal services for service members is not likely to wane anytime soon. “The demand for veterans of all ages, given the massive growth in our combat veteran population since 9/11, plus other generations like Vietnam or the first Gulf War veterans, creates a large population that’s underserved in terms of their legal needs,” observes Miller. To enhance their ability to offer services to this population, Reed Smith has partnered with other national organizations like the National Veterans Legal Services Program to help identify cases and needs where Reed Smith’s pro bono services can be best directed.
In the end, however, the focus for Miller remains on service — to his country, to his community and to those who serve beside him. “We all have our own underpinnings for why we serve,” he says. “For me, it’s a tradition of service in my family and love of country, but also because I truly believe those who don’t have to serve because of relative success in their personal lives — need to.”
Indeed, that keeps our military force diverse, he says, adding that he’s not suggesting that folks should be compelled to serve in the military, but rather those who don’t need to serve still should consider it.
“I strongly believe all Americans should contribute in some fashion to the greater collective good,” he notes. “And the military can stand sentinel for their rights.”