$10k Scholarship Finalist

Being sexually assaulted. Watching your newborn pass away. Dying during training from a supervisor’s negligence. According to the Supreme Court’s 1950 decision in Feres v. United States, it’s all in a day’s work for America’s service members. I want to use my law degree to change the world by lobbying Congress to overturn as much of that awful decision as I can.

In 1950, the Feres decision set a legal precedent called the Feres Doctrine, stating that active duty servicemembers cannot sue the government for harm that the military inflicts on them, as long as that harm is “incident to service.” Since Feres’ passage, “incident to service” has been expanded beyond normal combat risks to include medical malpractice, sexual assault, and fatal negligence committed by military personnel. When Feres has been applied in these instances, the consequences have been life-or-death, and worse.

In 2009, Airman Jessica Hinves was sexually assaulted by a fellow airman. Upon prosecuting her attacker, the military judge admitted that she was violently attacked, and dismissed her case anyway, leaving her attacker free to assault other women. But service members cannot sue for military sexual assault.

In 2020, Navy Corpsman Christopher Gnem and eight fellow sailors died during a training exercise. The Navy concluded that their deaths were preventable and were the result of their commander’s negligence. But service members’ families cannot sue for death due to negligence.

In 2019, Sgt. Richard Stayskal brought Congressional attention to Feres when his terminal cancer went undiagnosed by his military physician. When a civilian doctor found it, it was too late. But service members still cannot sue for military medical malpractice.

In 2020, the Stayskal Act achieved limited progress, as servicemembers can now file claims for medical negligence committed by military employees. However, soldiers still cannot take the Department of Defense to trial, meaning most victims will never be able to hold the responsible parties accountable. Moreover, the panels adjudicating the claims will consist of military generals, meaning the institution responsible for the negligence will determine its own punishment – virtually ensuring corrupt adjudications.

In college, I worked for Major Dwight Stirling at the Veterans Legal Institute in California, a nonprofit law firm providing pro bono legal services to low-income veterans, and advocating to raise awareness about laws like Feres that mistreat servicemembers. By 2019, Stirling became such a Feres expert that he testified before Congress at the hearing introducing Stayskal’s bill. My goal is to open another branch of this law firm for east coast veterans.

I hope to use my law degree to change the world by continuing Major Stirling and Sergeant Stayskal’s fight by lobbying Congress. $10,000 towards my 1L tuition would change my world by making it significantly more feasible for me to pursue such a career in nonprofit veterans’ law. I want to protect soldiers’ constitutional rights to sue the party who has wronged them – even when that party is the U.S. miliary – because sexual assault and wrongful death are not “incident to service.”

My career goal is to open a nonprofit law firm that helps veterans with a myriad of legal issues, and which also serves as a think tank to research and advocate for policy changes that could help America’s service members and veterans. The primary law I am currently seeking to dismantle is the Feres Doctrine, which prevents service members from suing the military when they are sexually assaulted or experience medical malpractice at the hands of the military. In addition to providing legal aid in areas like family law and discharge upgrades, I hope to use the think tank aspect of the firm to continue the fight to dismantle the Feres Doctrine and whatever other harmful policies may exist by the time I am in practice.

My career goal was inspired by Dr. Dwight Stirling, the founder of the original Veterans Legal Institute which served the same purpose, and I am very grateful to have gained support from BARBRI and to be embarking upon my legal education at Emory Law. Dr. Stirling has already become such an expert on Feres that he was chosen to testify about repealing it for the House Armed Services Committee in 2019. I was present in the House for his testimony and I hope to use my law career to continue the mission he started. Having worked at several think tanks and the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. after college, I have realized that the only way my career will be fulfilling to me is if I can see the faces and shake the hands of people who I help through my job. Whether I make it all the way to Congress like Dr. Stirling, or if I spend my life in Atlanta helping our nations heroes who are unable to afford a private attorney, I will know that I did my best to make my corner of the world a little better for someone other than myself, and that is my definition of a successful career.

Emory Law is an excellent fit for me because it will give me the best education and connections in the area where I intend to practice law, which will allow me to serve a large community of veterans as clients. Emory Law will help me achieve my goal of becoming “one lawyer who’ll change the world” because Emory Law graduates often set up successful practices in the greater Atlanta area, and Georgia is home to the ninth largest population of veterans by state. This means I will be right in the heart of where I can provide a significant amount of help to a significant number of veterans. Additionally, the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans will give me the hands-on clinical experience I need to gain a solid foundation for working with veterans during law school. Gaining this knowledge early in school will allow me to hit the ground running toward changing the world upon graduation. Moreover, attending Emory and practicing in Atlanta will allow me to visit my family in Tennessee frequently, which will make me a happier and healthier student and lawyer who is better able to serve her clients.

I would like to thank Dr. Dwight Stirling for hiring me at the original Veterans Legal Institute (VLI). I also want to thank Dr. Stirling and Captain Hunter Ashburn (Ret.) for their years of service to the United States Army and for inspiring me to pursue a career in veterans’ law and open a second VLI someday. Hunter has supported me throughout the application process as a role model, friend, and partner. I want to extend a big thank you to BARBRI for choosing me for this honor and for making such a kind contribution toward helping me help America’s men and women in uniform. Most importantly, I want to thank my parents, Dr. Stephen and Teresa Rohn, and my sister Lexy Harris, for always believing in me and keeping me grounded, no matter what country I moved to or what dream I was chasing.

Winning this scholarship would reignite my belief that regardless of our political parties, we Americans are still one people and we can still rally for the common good and help our fellow citizens. If I am chosen for the BARBRI scholarship, it will invigorate me as a student and as an American because if the kind folks at BARBRI believe in my dream, then I know I can convince other Americans to believe in it as well. Over the last few years, helping veterans has become increasingly important to me, not only because I believe it is morally correct, but also because I feel like supporting veterans is one of the last issues that people on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on. It has hurt me to watch my beloved country fall into a state of hostile polarization and political antagonism. While America has many problems to overcome, I believe our country is the best one in the world and I know our citizens are capable of bringing back the bipartisan dialogue we had only a few short years ago.

The BARBRI scholarship would allow me to take a large step in that bipartisan direction by opening a law firm to serve veterans regardless of their backgrounds, and hopefully to gain support and service hours from lawyers, law students and volunteers from both sides of the aisle. Moreover, since the VLI already exists in California and I intend to open up a second branch in Georgia, I believe that once my practice becomes as successful as Dr. Stirling’s, it could inspire other lawyers to open branches so that we can create an entire network of VLIs across America to serve those who served us. I believe this network could become a keystone in my hopes of bringing together lawyers and veterans of all stripes and parties to work together as Americans toward a common noble goal. That is a principle upon which our nation was founded, and one that I believe could help heal some of the political strife afflicting our country today.

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