Bad news. Nobody likes hearing it, and getting some about yourself is never good. But delivering bad news—especially to someone you care about—might be even worse.
In the military, delivering bad news about something duty- or mission-related isn’t great, but at least there are a few things that make it easier to do. After all, the military institution is designed to deal with death, destruction, and all kinds of adversity. As a practical matter, military personnel generally don’t have to guess about what bad news they must share: reporting requirements tell personnel and leaders what they must report and when. Also, there are cultural incentives: stepping up and reporting bad news quickly and accurately is respected. Finally, military custom and courtesy rules give servicemembers guidance on how to convey bad news in a respectful manner.
Unfortunately, none of that is helpful when it comes to sharing the news that you have been accused of something.
Whether the issue is an ongoing investigation, formal criminal charges, or some kind of adverse administrative action, a pending legal issue is going to impact your life as a military servicemember—sometimes in a very big way for a very long time. This is true regardless of whether the claims against you are true, false, or somewhere in-between. Depending on marital and family status, this might also mean that the lives of people close to you may also be impacted. Everyone who has ever stood accused of something has had to make the decision about who to tell and what to share about what is going on. It’s not an easy decision.
So, what do you do when that happens to you?
Fortunately, some of us deal with this on a regular basis, and we can help. Here are a few rules to follow when telling the people in your life that you are facing a legal issue:
- Stay calm.
Getting told that you are accused of a crime or that your military career is in jeopardy is a lot to take. Military personnel already experience a higher-than-normal level of stress, and this will feel different because it is personal to you. Your first order of business is to stay calm and not immediately react. As warriors, we are trained to identify threats and assess them so that we can decisively engage and come out on top. This is no different. You need to get some intel, which takes us to…
- Educate yourself first.
There’s an entire universe of possible things that are “legal trouble” in the military, from administrative actions to criminal prosecution under the UCMJ. To make matters worse, there is no obligation for your command to tell you what is (or will be) happening to you. You need to get answers, and where you look makes a huge difference. Your first inclination might be to head to the unit judge advocate. Wrong answer. That attorney represents the government, not you, and anything you tell them is not protected. Each services does have certain judge advocates assigned to provide defense representation services (TDS in the Army, ADC in the Navy, DLSO in the Navy/USMC/USCG) but be aware: those junior counsel have limited scope of services and assistance they can provide. A better solution is to take advantage of a free confidential legal consultationfrom an attorney with significant expertise. This will allow you to get a better assessment of what you’re facing and what to share with others.
- Be selective about who you tell, and don’t lie.
Lying is more dangerous than anything else. There are countless examples of weak cases that got stronger because of a lie told afterwards. When it comes to your right to remain silent, the law protects you, even in the military. People will be curious. They might hear that something is going on, or see you get called in by military law enforcement. Respectfully tell them that you can’t talk about it. The same goes for friends. Telling them what you know could make them witnesses against you. Worse, lying could be used as evidence against you later.
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to telling someone in your life that you have legal trouble with the military. Legal action can impact everything: where you work, whether you move, and even how long you serve. There will likely be a point where you need to tell your spouse or significant other what is happening. When that time comes, you need to have a plan. Don’t blurt it out in an argument or try to be clever about it. We strongly encourage you to talk to an attorney about what to say and when. Keep in mind that your partner will be in for the same shock you got. Remember how rough it felt to get the news yourself, and allow for that person to process what is going on.
- Talk about what is happening—not what happened—and focus on the future.
When telling a spouse, parent, or significant other about military legal trouble, you might be tempted to talk about the details of the incident or allegation. Don’t. Explain to them that your attorney has advised you to not discuss those details. Focus instead on making them aware of the process, as best you know it at that time. It will help if you can tell them that you have taken the step of talking to an attorney and that you have a plan for what may come next. Getting legal representation early can significantly increase your chances of success later, and having that added factor on your side will be a comfort to the people close to you.
- Be patient and manage expectations.
In most cases, your unit will “flag” you or place you on “legal hold.” This may mean that the school you were about to attend or the change-of-station you were about to make won’t happen as scheduled. Promotions—even approved ones with pin dates—will likely be put off. There are very few rules or laws that require any kind of speed when it comes to military legal action. Every case is different. Some of our clients have found themselves with charges preferred against them just weeks after an alleged incident, while others have waited more than a year while the command investigates and decides what to do. Contrary to what the barracks lawyer might tell you, the reality is that filing an IG complaint or a congressional inquiry about your matter will not speed the process up. Accepting this possibility early will make the process easier to take. Make sure the people in your life are also ready for the possible wait.
- Take care of yourself, stay connected, and keep people close to you.
Getting through an adverse legal process is no different than any kind of difficult military mission or duty. The same basic good habits that allow you to dominate on the battlefield are the keys to surviving this process: Sleep. Exercise. Nutrition. Hydration. Focus. Faith. Incorporate these resilience-tools into your daily routine and make your loved ones a part of that effort. Doing so will regain control of your lives, regardless of whatever legal matter may be waiting down the road.
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