For three years, Ruth and Frank Savala have been fielding phone calls and answering letters from servicemen who thought the government had done them wrong. This past week, the pair found they couldn't answer their phone fast enough or get to the mailbox quickly enough.
Citizens Against Military Injustice, a national organization begun by servicemen frustrated by a Defense Department bureaucracy that they believe denied them answers to their problems, found its way into the limelight last week during a two-day hearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee. And that is a spot that the Savalas, who direct the group from their home in Hampton, Va., do not plan to give up until changes are made in the military.
"We're just trying to get the military to be held responsible for their actions," Frank Savala said during the first hearing. Later, he confided: "It's just such a rat race. There's just so many young people who need help."
Names of those people are written on hundreds of charts that the Savalas have accumulated and stored in milk crates on a porch off their red-brick home.
The complaints range from what seem to be unnecessary deaths to claims of poor medical treatment or cruel punishment. The persons writing to the citizen group -- mothers, fathers, widows, widowers, sometimes the service member -- come from as far away as California or as nearby as Bethesda. They all want to know how to get some answers and are looking for strength from the number of others who want the same.
Ruth Savala, who is confined to a wheelchair, spends most of her days writing letters to service members' families, making phone calls to the Defense Department and trying to figure out ways to get answers and reports that explain the problems. Frank, a retired Air Force command sergeant major who fought in three wars, spends his time organizing and encouraging the outraged to pursue better answers.
They both know of the frustration behind the requests. It is a frustration they felt keenly three years ago when their 23-year-old son, Lt. Frank M. Savala Jr., died aboard a C130 transport that crashed in Turkey. At first, they were told their son, along with 27 other servicemen, died when the aircraft plummeted during a snowstorm at night.
Two years later, after the Savalas continued to push for a complete report of the incident, the couple found out their son died on a sunny day when an engine fell off the aircraft. According to the information the Salavas eventually received, the engine fell off because a bolt had rusted through, despite the fact that the bolt should have been inspected during a routine check.
The Savalas joined the ranks of Citizens Against Military Injustice a few months later. Since then, they have been trying to obtain what has been one of the goals of the group since its inception in September 1982: repeal of the Feres Doctrine, a Supreme Court ruling that bars lawsuits against the government by persons on active military duty.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a bill in Congress in February that would allow active duty personnel to sue for medical mishaps in military facilities. On Friday, days after the hearings in which Citizens Against Military Injustice members outlined cases of alleged medical incompetence, Frank Savala described the group as a "force that has helped" to create an atmosphere the could aid the measure's chances in Congress.
"They're a group of people who were not political people before . . . but I think they've become pretty sophisticated about how to get things done," he said.
Toward that end, the group has held annual conferences in Washington, established hot lines with each service of the armed forces and scheduled yearly meetings with top health professionals in the Defense Department. Dr. Jarrett Clinton, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for professional affairs and quality assurance, said in the hearing last week that he did not believe a change in the law that would allow lawsuits against the government would improve military health care.
But, he said later, the group behind the proposed legislation has made a difference. "They've brought to our attention autopsy issues and the fact that regulations that deal with autopsies were inconsistent from service to service. They have asked for more formal reviews of deaths," he said, adding that the Defense Department was establishing more stringent procedures for dealing with deaths.
"Generally, I get the sense that they are appreciative . . . and I would hope they would agree that they have an excellent dialogue with the Defense Department," he said.
Ruth and Frank Savala say they see their group, an organization that now has 34 chapters and almost 4,000 members throughout the United States and received a boost in membership after the recent hearings, as one that wants to help the military help its own.
"We're not radicals," Frank Savala said. "All we're saying is: 'You left children without a daddy and you left mommas and daddies without their children. Now you can't turn away from that.' "