Protect Our Defenders announces the two winners of first annual award: Both LAS-ELC attorneys


Today, Protect Our Defenders (POD), the only national human rights organization solely dedicated to ending the epidemic of harassment and sexual assault in the U.S. military, announced the first two winners of the “2016 Protect Our Defenders Justice Award.” The inaugural annual award is being given to two attorneys from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC), Cacilia Kim, Special Counsel, and Elizabeth Kristen, Director of their Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program. Ms. Kim and Ms. Kristen have worked tirelessly on behalf military sexual assault survivors through the non-profit’s Pro Bono Network. A third yet to be announced recipient will be named in the coming months. 

The Pro Bono Network includes a network of lawyers willing to assist active duty, veteran, and civilian survivors of military rape and sexual assault, at no cost, for claims arising from or related to their assaults, including various forms of retaliation.

POD’s Pro Bono Network is the only program in the country providing free legal services specifically for survivors of military sexual assault.

“We are incredibly grateful for Cacilia, Elizabeth and all of the attorneys fighting on behalf of our service members. Far too often survivors are denied justice and retaliated against after reporting their assaults,” said Col Don Christensen, President of Protect Our Defenders and the former Chief Prosecutor of the U.S Air Force. “For too long, survivors of military sexual assault have been silenced, and left to face a hostile military system on their own. Thanks to the generous efforts of attorneys like Cacilia and Elizabeth, these survivors now have someone in their corner, fighting for their rights and demanding justice.”

The Awardees have worked on a number of cases that bear a disturbing similarity; these survivors were diagnosed with pre-existing Personality Disorders instead of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to military sexual trauma after reporting their attacks. The Air Force Times published an investigative series on one of these cases, “They Accused Superiors of Assault & Harassment: Now their careers are over” featuring Airman Trent Smith. This story helped expose a culture of personality disorder misdiagnoses, and retaliation against victims of sexual assault in the military who reported their attacks.

“It has been a privilege to work with Protect Our Defenders as part of their Pro Bono Network for the past few years. They fill a critical need — providing independent legal assistance to service members who have been sexually assaulted during their military service,” said Cacilia Kim, Special Counsel, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. “Their passionate pursuit to right such egregious wrongs is inspiring and contagious. I am truly honored to receive this award.”

Ms. Kim works mainly in LAS-ELC’s Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and handles a variety of cases, including Title IX federal class action lawsuits seeking equal access to education, and state, federal and administrative actions on behalf of military service members who were sexually assaulted during their service.

“I am humbled and impressed by the courage shown by our brave servicemen and women who are on the frontlines everyday dealing with sexual assault and harassment while serving our country. When they contact Protect our Defenders seeking help to fight for their own rights, we need to be there for them,” said Elizabeth Kristen, Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. “I have been privileged to do so. My admiration for Protect our Defenders is boundless so I am particularly honored to receive this award.”    

Ms. Kristen launched LAS-ELC’s Veterans and Military Families Project and co-founded a monthly civil legal needs clinic for veterans in Fresno, CA. Elizabeth has worked with veterans with PTSD from military sexual assault in internal military proceedings and discharge reviews, in connection with VA benefits, and in civilian employment situations. 

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