For Torrance photographer Taron James, a decorated veteran of Operation Northern Watch, Veterans Day always brings mixed emotions.
James enlisted in the Navy at age 20 in the days leading up to the first Persian Gulf War, and carried out hazardous reconnaissance missions behind Iraqi lines in the war’s aftermath.
He earned four service medals and three ribbons before his honorable discharge in 1994. Yet his reward for his service has been nine years of unremitting government harassment, financial deprivation, and a constant struggle to stay out of jail.
"Sometimes it’s hard to feel much pride on Veterans Day," he says.
"Sometimes I just feel like a sucker. Veterans Day only reminds me that my government holds me and other vets in such contempt that it cannot lift a finger to stop a blatant fraud which victimizes tens of thousands of servicemen. Worse, the government actively enforces that fraud."
While serving in Iraq, James was notified that a woman he knew back home was demanding that he pay child support for her newborn son. James knew from the beginning that the child could not possibly be his.
The Navy’s Judge Advocate General is not authorized to handle a serviceman’s legal problems outside of the military justice system, but a sympathetic captain helped him obtain an agreement from the child’s mother for a DNA test.
Before the test could be done, however, the mother reneged on the agreement and disappeared with the child.
James requested a blood test from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, and was told repeatedly over the next year and a half that he would be notified when there was a new development in the case. The D.A. instead went to court without James’ knowledge and obtained a default judgment against him. James did not find out about it until the D.A. seized his driver’s license and began taking 50 percent of his take home pay.
Despite subsequent legal appeals and an April, 2001 DNA test which confirmed that the child is not his, the courts have refused to set aside the judgment. In the years since the D.A. and later Los Angeles County Child Support Services have: seized James’ tax refund for six years in a row; blocked him from renewing his notary public license, which in turn caused him to lose his job as the manager of a business; ruined his credit, denying him the chance to purchase the business at a low price when the owner offered it to him for sale; blocked him from obtaining a passport; and forced him to drop out of college before finishing his degree.
James’ problem is not uncommon. According to Carnell Smith, Executive Director of the National Family Justice Association, military men such as James are often "preyed upon" by unscrupulous "father shoppers" who can make fraudulent paternity designations without penalty.
"The military provides (a mother) a steady, easily garnished income as well as medical care for the baby. It’s hard to contest paternity when you’re thousands of miles away and losing a good chunk of your income to child support," he says.
"Sometimes the time limit for contesting runs out and the guy ends up on the hook for 18 years of child support simply because he served his country."
The solution to the problem is paternity fraud legislation of the type enacted in Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and other states. This legislation allows putative fathers more time and greater judicial flexibility in challenging paternity findings.
Similar legislation in California was vetoed last fall by Gov. Gray Davis, and a revised paternity fraud bill, SB 1030, passed the Senate 34-2 in June but is currently stalled in the Assembly.
James has joined with 600 other victimized veterans and their families to form the Los Angeles-based activist group Veterans Fighting Paternity Fraud.
"The problems we face wouldn’t be hard for the government to solve if someone gave a damn," he says. "Every Veterans Day and Memorial Day I think the same thing – we don’t need parades and speeches – we need justice."
- Daily Breeze [Los Angeles]11/11/03