An increase of active military and veteran students is
enriching Berkeley Law in many ways
By Andrew Cohen
There’s no denying that 1L year can be stressful. But if you oversaw combat missions in Afghanistan, led a nuclear submarine, or went to Ranger School before law school—as some Berkeley Law students have—the notion of a torts exam doubling your blood pressure seems rather absurd.
Chris Moon ’21 didn’t just go to Ranger School, a tortuous 61-day combat leader-ship course where one-third of participants drop out or fail by the end of the first week. He went with a figurative arm tied behind his back as one of the few non-combat arms soldiers in his Ranger class.
Moon vividly recalls a six-hour patrol, chest-deep in a sweltering Florida swamp, while carrying a 105-pound rucksack and a 27-pound machine gun. “Six hours of pure misery,” he says. “Seeing water moccasins swimming next to me made it even worse.”
Though he endured that challenge, Moon failed his first attempt at Ranger School, an outcome he says devastated him. True to military form, however, he resolved to train harder rather than accept defeat.
“Eleven months later, I became a Ranger,” Moon says “After going through something like that, it’s easier to keep other stresses in perspective.”
Moon climbed the Army’s leadership ranks and landed at U.S. Central Command in the Department of Defense. There, he managed 22 intelligence analysts who advised generals on key decisions affecting their soldiers across the Middle East, and his airstrike recommendations were sent to President Obama for approval. He also led targeting meetings to assist the French government after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
Active military and veteran students like Moon are a growing presence at Berkeley Law, enriching the collective learning environment and providing real-world perspective. Eleven just finished their 1L year, the highest number in a Berkeley Law class in decades. They entered the military—just as they entered law school—from all kinds of backgrounds and for all kinds of reasons.
“In our entering J.D. and LL.M. classes this year we enrolled about twice as many current and former members of the U.S. armed forces as last year,” says Kristin Theis-Alvarez, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. “And last year was itself a near record number. This is a growing part of the law school’s diversity, and a vital one.”
The son of Korean immigrants, Moon was 18 when he was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—just three years after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen—at the height of the Iraq War in 2007. At age seven, he attended free English classes hosted by a West Point graduate at a U.S. base. “Over time I’d developed a deep appreciation of the American military for their presence in South Korea after the Korean War,” Moon says. “I wanted to give back to my new country.”
The first Korean-American Principal Nominee to represent his congressional district at West Point, Moon won two Military Outstanding Volunteer Service medals after spending more than 500 hours coaching soccer, building houses, teaching math and English to local children, and serving in church missions to Peru and Cambodia.
“I think the idea of service through promoting justice makes law school an appealing option for veterans,” Moon says. “You encounter people from all walks of life in the military, which helps ease the transition to any new situation. And adjusting to Berkeley Law is easier because the students are collaborative and very down to earth.”
Creating a community
January 31 offered a prime example of how military and veteran students are gaining a meaningful foothold at Berkeley Law.
During a lunchtime presentation, Lieutenant Colonel Shane Reeves discussed an approach to targeting—the process of choosing objects or installations to be attacked, taken, or destroyed in warfare—that respects the principle of distinction, protects civilians, and is practical to implement. A U.S. Military Academy law professor, Reeves addressed these issues in a recent Berkeley Journal of International Law article.
Before the presentation, Ken Cohen ’69 announced a new campaign for the Berkeley Law Active Duty Military and Veterans Scholarship Fund, which will help recruit more students from the armed forces.
“It’s important to show that our campus welcomes and supports veterans by offering financial assistance to those who need it,” says former Marine Bonifacio Sison ’20. “We’re also expanding robust programming that strengthens our community after they enroll.”
An example: Later that night, a networking function was held for area law student veterans at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco. Co-hosted by the student group Military and Veterans at Berkeley Law, the event drew about 50 law students and attorneys, including judges and employers from large firms and government offices.
“The idea is to build a network of veterans and military affiliates within the legal profession,” says Sison, who leads MVBL with Michael David Harris ’20, Elizabeth Hall ’20, and Nathan Keller ’19.
Last fall, the group hosted a lecture by Tess Bridgeman, senior fellow at NYU School of Law’s Reiss Center on Law and Security and former National Security Council deputy legal adviser. Bridgeman—who worked on the negotiation, implementation, and oversight of the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama—discussed current legal issues facing the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
MVBL hosted a welcome reception, attended by veterans, faculty, law students, family, and friends, where Dean Erwin Chemerinsky spoke.
“Having the membership to plan, organize, and execute these kinds of events is an amazing way to challenge ideas and stereotypes about the military and the individuals who serve in it,” Sison says. “Our events are open to everyone, and they’re an opportunity for law students and the general public to get to know us as individuals, hear our stories, and understand our motivations.”
Veterans Law Practicum
Part of their motivation is to continue serving fellow veterans. A ripe forum to achieve that, the school’s Veterans Law Practicum conducts free legal clinics at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and other venues.
Berkeley Law students from both military and non-military backgrounds provide direct services to veterans and help them obtain disability and other benefits. The students meet with prospective clients to determine their needs and conduct research to evaluate if the practicum can offer advice or representation.
Their work includes assembling documents, drafting and submitting various filings, and sometimes representing clients before the VA regional office, Board of Veterans Affairs, and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. In certain situations, the practicum partners with an outside lawyer or makes a referral to an appropriate legal services provider.
Luisa Patino ’19, a U.S. Air Force Second Lieutenant who aims to become a Judge Advocate General, spent two semesters with the practicum. She appreciates gaining “valuable insight into how veterans law works, as well as powerful interactions with folks who often are hopeless and really need our advocacy. The practicum has not only taught me about the substance of veterans law, it has also kept me grounded.”
Students tackle at least two ongoing projects each semester. Those have included working on amending statutes governing certain VA benefits and programs; upgrading discharge status for veterans dis-charged under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell program; and helping veterans with recent criminal convictions through the Oakland Veterans Court program.
“This provides us with a great opportunity as law students to research and engage with interesting topics that are affecting amazing individuals who, without us, are left with no other recourse,” Patino says.
That spirit of service and camaraderie is apparent among Berkeley Law’s military and veteran community. MVBL played a key role in recruiting more veterans to this year’s 1L class, sending out personal notes to those who were accepted and hosting a dinner during Admitted Students Weekend in March.
“Some veterans are initially concerned with Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal campus that’s critical of military service,” Harris says. “Our presence helps to dispel that myth and encourage students to be open and proud of their military service. Fortunately, the audience for the several lunch talks we’ve hosted has included many non-veteran students who want to learn more about the military.”
Veteran students note the challenge of adjusting from the military’s rigid structure to law school’s freer dynamics. Jeff Senning ’19 appreciates that shift, having almost left the Army out of frustration from “a bureaucracy that doesn’t tailor itself to individual expression.”
He realized, however, “that my reasons for attending West Point in the first place were still there. I still believed in the mission, and in the people. As a mentor once told me: ‘Mission first, people always.’”
While stationed in Hawaii, Senning was a newly minted lieutenant with no combat experience when a large group of soldiers were sent there after serving in Afghanistan.
“I was green and they were far more experienced than me in real warfare,” says Senning, who oversaw units ranging from 28 to 110 solders. “It took a lot of humility to lead such incredible people returning from a really difficult experience and dealing with reintegration and trying to resume their ‘normal’ lives. Working to meet their needs and fill resource gaps for them was both trying and gratifying.”
While there are diverse political orientations within the military, “conservative thought seemed dominant,” Senning says. “If you went on a base, the TVs pretty much always had Fox News on. I thought if I’m going to broaden my horizons and balance my outlook and development, Berkeley would probably be the best place to do that.”
Co-president of the law school’s Federalist Society chapter during his 2L year, on a campus with a liberal reputation, Senning would seemingly face an arduous task navigating the Berkeley terrain. Not so.
“I was leery of finding an echo chamber here, but I’ve been pleasantly mistaken,” he says. “It feels like we’re seeing more serious debates with more viewpoints represented in class from when I started here as a 1L. That’s really encouraging.”
Some of Berkeley Law’s veteran students grew up in military families. Some felt a calling after 9/11. Some needed to enlist to help pay for college. Some have engaged in in combat missions around the world. Some never left the U.S. while serving. Many have defied preconceptions.
Patino spent the summer of 2015 as a legal intake intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, a frequent critic of U.S. national security policies and practices. Teresa Scanlan ’21—Miss America in 2011—gained such appreciation for the sacrifices made by the officers and wounded soldiers she met with that she enlisted in the Air National Guard and spent three months away from her son.
Berkeley Law’s veteran students show that while there is no one path to or within the military, there is a unifying commitment to something bigger than themselves.
Catching those who fall
Noelle Reyes ’20, a former enlisted Air Force staff sergeant, worked as a mental health counselor and medic with soldiers suffering from PTSD, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other issues. Often lacking a full-time mental healthy facility, she created her own initiatives to help fill the void.
“I wanted to reduce the stigma surrounding our profession and wrote mental health articles for the base newspaper, put on events promoting relaxation and wellness, and tried to expand other resources,” Reyes says. “A lot of our most impactful work can be done in an unofficial capacity.”
In law school, she has worked in a Legal Aid homelessness service project and the Veterans Law Practicum. In college, she was a newspaper opinion columnist, radio station reporter and producer, and elephant nature park volunteer.
“Some people see the military and people who serve in a narrow way,” Reyes says. “When they meet us, though, those preconceptions start to wash away because veterans bring a broad range of experiences. We’ve been put in all kinds of situations all over the world, working in tough conditions, and getting exposed to cultures different than our own.”
That exposure sometimes contrasts sharply with classmates—and certain moments require a deep breath. Reyes recalls a classroom discussion last year of the book Agent Orange.
“One student aggressively criticized how soldiers never stood up for themselves within the military and other things that had no basis in knowledge or experience,” she says. “Interactions like that can be tense, but they’re learning opportunities for everyone.”
Momentum in motion
With the productive practicum, new scholarship fund campaign, increase in military and veteran students, MVBL’s expanded programming, and ongoing efforts to create a speaker series and military law research opportunities, Berkeley Law’s momentum in this area is surging.
“Not too long ago, the student veterans group had to be administratively revived because membership had gone down and no one took up the task of maintaining our status with the campus,” Sison says. “Fortunately, our organization is seeing a real upswing in activity and programming, and with our growing numbers that should continue.”
While veteran students face a greater lifestyle adjustment than most of their classmates, “one thing we learn in the military is to never get outworked,” Senning says. “That’s something we can all fall back on.”
For Berkeley Law, that dedication—and the broad set of experiences Senning and his fellow patriots bring to the school—is invaluable.
“There is no one set of skills, nor only one perspective, that an active duty member of the U.S. military, reservist, or veteran possesses,” Theis-Alvarez says. “They’re from all walks of life, and all over the country. Yet what each one shares is a commitment to public service, making them a wonderful fit for Berkeley Law.”