It is a tragic irony that the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces, who frequently sacrifice their lives in the defense of liberty and the United States Constitution, sometimes fall victim to the corruption embodied in the phrase, “rules for thee but not for me.”
Such was the case with Sgt. Derrick Miller in 2010, a U.S. Army National Guardsman on his third tour of duty. During a mission inside Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan, he questioned an Afghan local suspected of spying on their operations. The man tried to seize the sergeant’s gun, and in the scuffle, Miller was forced to shoot and kill him in self-defense.
Miller’s platoon leader, Sgt. 1st. Class Jason Tinelle, stated that Miller’s quick actions prevented a “mass casualty situation” by alerting the troops in advance to an attack that happened shortly afterward. However, what could have viewed as a straightforward incident was marred by expediency and, ultimately, Miller believes, by corruption.
Because of what Miller believes was a miscarriage of justice, he was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison.
His case got the attention of the nonprofit United American Patriots (UAP). Founded by retired Marine Corps Major Bill Donahue, UAP works to aid military personnel who they believe have been wrongfully convicted of war crimes. When congressman Louie Gohmert and the late congressman Elijah Cummings, with a letter from the entire Congressional Black Caucus, interceded on the sergeant’s behalf, Miller was finally granted parole in May of 2019, after nine years in Leavenworth prison.
Miller’s parole was celebrated at an event sponsored by UAP on June 4, 2019. Nine members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, welcomed Miller home. The late Democratic congressman from Maryland, Elijah Cummings, spoke in his support.
At the event, Gohmert and then-congressman Duncan Hunter asked Miller to help them create the Congressional Justice for Warriors Caucus (CJWC). He was appointed as the military advisor to Gohmert and the executive director of a new project: an official House of Representatives Caucus, funded by dues from participating members of Congress.
It’s a small caucus, at this point, with a staff of two: Miller and his co-worker, Lauren McLaughlin. Together, they work to assist military personnel who are not being represented properly. They also work with members of Congress to change some of the laws that are the foundation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The Uniform Code of Military Justice is, like any other set of laws, something that can be altered, and Congress is the legislative body that has the power to improve it.
Miller believes that many members of Congress, and the public at large, are unaware of the flaws in the Uniform Code—flaws that are connected to the culture of the military. In order to function properly, especially in combat, the military must operate as a top-down machine. It’s a time-tested, logical, and effective approach to the often messy business of defending the nation and the U.S. Constitution.
The American founders knew that the potential corruption of leaders required checks and balances. Yet, as Miller stated: “Congress has given latitude to the military to police itself.” A fundamental problem with that process stems from what makes the military so successful in battle: at every level of rank, soldiers are taught to obey without question. “Over the years,” Miller said, “we’ve dealt with so many cases, whether it’s combat or not, where your commander or the people above you—before the investigation is completed or even conducted—come to an assumption of what took place. And that drives the entire investigation moving forward.” He added that, “subordinates are rated, receive promotions, and receive accolades for accomplishing the duties that their superiors divvy out to them. That system doesn’t give a lot of latitude for autonomy.”
Thus, prosecutors and defense attorneys in a military trial operate with an inherent conflict of interest and what has become a two-tier military justice system. Miller said: “I don’t think the military system is inherently evil, but there are people in positions of power—if they choose to pull those levers—it is very easy for them to turn the full force and the power of the military against an individual service member.”
Because of the power structure, higher-ranking officers are more protected than those beneath them. One example that Miller discussed was the difference in consequences between the actions of Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley.
Scheller pleaded guilty to violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice by publicly speaking on video about his views on the failure of military leadership during the Afghanistan withdrawal. The Justice for Warriors Caucus helped release Scheller from a highly unusual and draconian pre-trial confinement and helped get him a discharge listed as, “General Under Honorable Conditions,” which allowed him to get veteran benefits. Without their help, his punishment may have been more severe.
The military treated Gen. Milley quite differently. As reported by the New York Post on September 29, 2021, in an article titled, “Milley admits he would tell Chinese general if US launched an attack”: “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley admitted Wednesday that he would give his Chinese counterpart a heads up if the US launched an attack against Beijing.” Milley is still serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The Caucus has worked with about 50 or 60 service members in its first three years since 2019. They work to overturn convictions, gain clemency for soldiers, or obtain pardons. They focus on cases that were mishandled or where the judgments were too heavy-handed.
The Caucus encourages the full investigative process to play out, which gives the accused more due process. Miller said that in some cases, the service members were guilty but deserve clemency. With others, they’re believed to be innocent.
U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division First Lieutenant Clint Lorance was convicted of two murders and an attempted murder in Afghanistan in 2012 because he ordered his men to fire on three men riding on a motorcycle approaching his soldiers at high speed. There had been constant IED
(improvised explosive device) attacks on their unit by the Taliban, as well as multiple suicide attacks by men on motorcycles. His men fired and killed two of the three Afghans. The third escaped.
The defense team was not informed that military staff had found fingerprints of the men on IEDs planted in the local area. Lorance was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years of confinement.
The Caucus got involved, along with many other individuals and groups, even though the appeal window was over. With military avenues exhausted, the only recourse was a pardon, which President Donald Trump granted on November 15, 2019. Lorance had served six years of his original 19-year sentence.
Miller stated that a serious problem with military courts is that judgments do not have to be unanimous, as they are in civil courts. In 2021, the “Justice for Warriors Act,” which would make unanimous verdicts mandatory in the military, was introduced in the House. It has stalled in committee.
In Miller’s opinion, the solution to the potential corruption in the military justice system is to offload all serious cases to the federal courts, with all their attendant checks and balances. Some cases would still need to be handled by the military, such as soldiers going AWOL (away without leave). But for cases like murder, Miller believes that service personnel need the guarantees inherent in federal trials.
Miller is working hard to obtain that justice for as many service members as possible. He may yet be given a pardon for a crime that he says he did not commit. He is supported and believed in by many, including Gohmert, who stated: “Knowing the horrible circumstances that Derrick endured and seeing how he handled everything with such grace and dignity and not an ounce of bitterness, should be inspiring to all Americans. The military took so much precious time away from Derrick and his family, and now, instead of having a chip on his shoulder about this, he is back serving his country again—this time, from Capitol Hill—and fighting to ensure what happened to him won’t happen to another service member.”