Lt. Rudolph Feres parachuted into the darkness in the first hours of D-Day in 1944. He fought his way through the hedgerows of Normandy and the snows of the Bulge to the final defeat of Nazi Germany, and was highly decorated for valor.
Generations of servicemen and women since then have heard his name, but not for any of that. Instead, it has been invoked time and again to deny active-duty members of the military a right extended to nearly every other American — to sue for injuries.
Lieutenant Feres made it through some of the toughest fighting of World War II, only to be killed in a stateside barracks fire. When his widow tried to sue the Army for negligence, the Supreme Court, in a watershed 1950 ruling, laid down what became known as the Feres doctrine: The government is not liable for injuries sustained by military members on active duty.
Now, a bill before Congress is poised to knock a hole in the Feres doctrine, the first in generations. A provision that would allow troops to file claims against the military over one kind of negligence — medical malpractice — has been added to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, the giant bill that funds the military.