Matching law students with GIs wanting out of the military may not seem a natural fit. But law students volunteering with AFSC’s San Francisco GI Rights hotline are finding the experience richly rewarding. “To start ending some of the hurt for people: that’s what I like about it,” says Jason Thomas, a second year student at University of California Hastings.
A Marine veteran of the Iraq war, Jason was asked by AFSC’s staff to work on the hotline, which is part of a network in 20 locations around the nation. Law students are paired with an experienced counselor to handle calls from people thinking about enlisting, or GIs who have gone AWOL, or want to file for a hardship or medical discharge. AFSC staffer Sandra Schwartz says the Bay Area hotline, 1-877-447-4487, gets about 30 calls a week. Reaching out to law students works, Sandra says, because “they’re not intimidated by legalese, obviously and they get hands-on experience. It also makes them more aware of political issues.”
Last fall Jason, 30, and nine other interns joined the hotline staff. Like his peers, Jason found it fulfilling using his newly acquired knowledge of the law to help people. “I think the military does a fairly good job supporting the troops, but it’s a one-size-fits-all arrangement, and that means people fall through the cracks. A lot of (hotline work) is giving people an ear, calming them down, and going through regulations with them,” Jason says.
Fellow intern Sylvia Pham, a first year student at the University of San Francisco, first came to fulfill a community service obligation, but is staying on through May because she’s intrigued by the work. “It’s nice to find a group of activists to work with, since law itself is a conservative field of study. It’s interesting work. So many of the calls I heard were from people who joined for economic reasons, and need to get out because of family obligations.” .
“One young man’s dad had been killed by a criminal mob in Mexico and he had to go AWOL to get there and take care of things. Another (call) was from a panicky dad, who had signed the release form but didn’t want to (go through with it) because he was sure his son would die.”
Sandra Schwartz plans to recruit at more law schools, including Stanford and Boldt, to expand the hours of live coverage. “The ones who are calling are having a hard time and it’s better for them not to leave messages. Being able to take live calls is better for the callers, and makes it a richer experience for the students as well,” she says.