Intoxicated by youth, books and the influence of beloved Pomona College Philosophy Professor Fred Sontag, Dwight Stirling ’92 became an idealist.
“He introduced me to existentialism: Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Nietzsche,” Stirling says of Sontag, who died in 2009. “Those ideas set the trajectory of my life, because in my work, in philosophy, I was looking at questions like, ‘What does it mean to live a good life? What’s the point of our existence? How do we find meaning and fulfillment?’”
Less than a decade later, with five years as a high school English teacher in his wake and a University of Southern California law degree on his wall, Stirling had become a high-powered lawyer on L.A.’s Westside. He was spending his days helping big corporations “battle each other about who’s going to be stuck with the bill” and earning well into six figures. Then came the day in 2001 that changed his life.
A Clear September Morning
“I was in my apartment in Venice on the morning it happened. A friend called, said to turn on the TV. One Twin Tower was already on fire,” Stirling says. “I watched the plane hit the second one.
“In the chaos, everyone was running away, scared and panicking. But there were some people going the other direction, going into the flames. These were the firefighters and first responders. Their bravery was breathtaking, the duty and loyalty they displayed in the midst of crisis. I remember thinking, what I am doing with my life right now? My job of helping corporations fight against each other suddenly felt very insignificant. The nation was under attack, its iconic buildings on fire, and I was on the sidelines. I had no role, no part in the protection effort. Somehow that seemed unacceptable.”
What followed was an epiphany: Stirling decided he needed to align his values with his conduct. That led to an about-face that could have cost him his life but instead has fulfilled it. He enlisted in the Army, and within months was off to basic combat training and Officer Candidate School. The former all-league linebacker for the Sagehens ran toward the flames.
With his legal training, Stirling eventually served an overseas deployment in Kosovo as a chief of military justice and earned the rank of major in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps of the California Army National Guard. For seven years, he served on active duty at the Joint Forces Training Base in the Orange County city of Los Alamitos, where he became the lead prosecutor for the Cal Guard.
Fighting a Different Battle
Today, Stirling remains a reservist, but he has found his calling as co-founder and CEO of the Veterans Legal Institute (VLI), a nonprofit law firm and think tank in Santa Ana that provides free legal services to veterans.
“As a full-time JAG officer, I saw that there were a multitude of veterans who could not access legal services. I could not help them, limited to assisting only current service members,” Stirling says. “Most of the veterans who came by the JAG office asking for help were low-income, unable to pay the going rate of $500 per hour for a private attorney. Their legal problems were going unaddressed, exacerbated by the lack of attention.”
In 2014, Stirling and co-founder Antoinette Balta opened the Veterans Legal Institute. Since then, the firm has served more than 4,500 veterans, often helping them secure discharge upgrades to receive the crucial veterans benefits they had been denied. Other common legal issues include landlord-tenant problems, bankruptcy and family law issues. In recognition of the firm’s work, the Orange County Register named Stirling and Balta as two of the county’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2016.
With only six paid employees, the firm relies on an army of pro bono attorneys and legal interns, tapping into a wellspring of support with the local legal and academic community that far exceeded Stirling’s expectations. Students at all levels — law school, college and even high school — reach out to him almost daily, asking to volunteer or intern as law clerks. Ten Pomona students participated in VLI’s spring 2018 internship program, working directly with veterans.
“It really taught me that lawyers can be advocates – not just do specific casework, but create larger systemic change,” says Megan Rohn ’18.
The ‘Feres Doctrine’
In his work, Stirling has latched onto a cause that drives him: He wants to see an end to what is known as the Feres doctrine, which stems from a 1950 Supreme Court case involving a soldier’s death in a barracks fire. The precedent effectively bars service members or their families from collecting damages for injuries or other harm incurred on duty.
While it might be clear that liability for deaths in combat would be untenable, Stirling says other cases are far more complicated. “Service members’ inability to file civil lawsuits applies across the board, no matter how they are hurt,” Stirling says. “The categorical ban is far too broad, needing to be more nuanced.”
For him, there is a particular category that resonates deeply: sexual assaults.
“There’s an epidemic in the military of sexual assault where women, by and large, are assaulted by men, primarily by their superiors,” Stirling says.
“It’s morally reprehensible to prohibit a rape victim who was, for instance, assaulted during boot camp by her drill instructor, from suing him in court,” Stirling says. “Yet this is what happens. It’s inconsistent with the values of our country. No one is above the law. To place perpetrators who happen to be wearing a uniform at the time they commit their assaults outside the reach of the judiciary makes no sense.”
It’s a he-said, she-said world, and the ‘he’ usually holds the higher rank.
Retaliation, can take the shape of expedited separation actions. Using terms such as “personality disorder” or “adjustment disorder,” commanders can dismiss survivors with very little due process. These derogatory terms, Stirling says, wind up on discharge papers and have serious post-service consequences. As survivors frequently self-medicate to cope, they also are labeled “drug failures” and are told their service was “other than honorable.” These labels void their eligibility for the GI Bill, putting the promise of free college education out of reach.
But the damage goes further.
“When a potential employer sees these terms, will they give the person a job? Probably not,” Stirling says. “As a result, the survivor can neither go to school, receive housing assistance, or get a job. Where does that lead? Straight to homelessness. People often wonder why there is an epidemic of homelessness in the veteran community. For many, service-related trauma gets the best of them, be it combat trauma or military sexual trauma. When this happens, society effectively throws them away.”
While the plight facing veterans as a whole is complex, Stirling believes he will find a sympathetic audience for the cause of military sexual assault victims, a group that is “unprotected and marginalized.” To him, “their stories are heartbreaking.”
To bring attention to the Feres doctrine, Stirling has written opinion pieces for the Register as well as for legal and military journals. He has spoken on campus at Pomona, and on October 12 will lead a symposium on the Feres doctrine and military sexual trauma at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. He also is writing a dissertation titled “The Feres Doctrine – A Historical Legal Analysis” as he fulfills requirements for a doctorate in education in organizational leadership at Pepperdine University.
Yet hoping for a Supreme Court reversal could be futile, and the high court already has declined to strike down the Feres ruling multiple times.
“The other way is through legislation, the passage of a statute that will allow survivors to sue their perpetrators,” Stirling says. “While all victims of non-combat-related tort injuries should be able to sue, it might be best to start with the sexual assault context. Who can be against this? I want to meet the modern-day legislator who believes it’s good policy for the courthouse door to be closed to one and only one category of survivor, military survivors, that is, the people who risk their lives to protect our collective freedoms.”
In the meantime, he and the Veterans Legal Institute are trying to help one veteran at a time.
“I remember thinking about the quote by Gandhi, which says we must be the change we want to see in the world. We can’t point our fingers and say someone else should do it, and just sit there in paralysis and feel despondent,” Stirling says. “If we see where that change should occur, we must embody it. That’s where we find fulfillment. That’s where you find your meaning in life.”