The Center’s newest lawyer was far from home when he faced the crisis of conscience that changed his life.
By Tim Connor
By his own admission, Barry Pfundt wasn’t a very good college student the first time around. To anyone who’s seen him at work, that’s a hard fact to absorb: the lawyer we’ve experienced as a passionate, social justice advocate explaining that if he had much of an interest in anything by age 17 it was in cars.
He wound up leaving college before graduating and, as his father had done before him, he joined the Navy.
It was not the experience he’d hoped it would be. As Uncle Sam promises, you do get to see a lot of the world in the Navy, and Barry did, though he sarcastically notes that recruiters tend to leave out the fact that 75% of the planet is covered by ocean.
The globe is also covered in issues. As the ships on which he served were steaming their ways from one trouble spot to another, Barry’s mind began to go to work on what he was seeing and experiencing. As the world and mission around him came into focus, his conscience was telling him he didn’t belong there. He ultimately decided he would break ranks, to tell the Navy that he was a conscientious objector. How he got to that point—the loyalties he embraced and the choices he made from there—are what eventually led him to do the work he does now at the Center for Justice.
Barry on how he sees the Center for Justice and his role at the law firm.
“I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” Barry Pfundt says about his career as a public interest attorney. “The ability to help individuals in crisis work their way through problems or at least give them the opportunity to get their lives back on track is an amazing, addictive thing to do.”
Just to be clear about it, Barry Pfundt did not have a problem with the ocean. As he was growing up in Bellingham, both his father and uncle were in the maritime business. In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in high school Barry began working on commercial fishing boats, working Alaskan waters.
“You basically work from dawn to dusk,” he says about the physical labor involved. “And this is an Alaskan summer, so that’s a long day.”
The last of five summers he worked, it was on a boat out of Petersburg in Southeast Alaska. His uncle, who captained the boat, allowed the crew some extended time ashore and Barry used it to explore the Alaskan wilderness. He struggles to put into words how deeply affected he was by the grandeur of the untamed Alaskan landscape. In the way his life unfolded it also matters that his rich experience in the wilds of Alaska was immediately juxtaposed with his entry into the Navy. After a summer in Alaska, he was sent to boot camp in Orlando, Florida, a place that seems as though it was designed to be the opposite of a pristine wilderness.
“In boot camp, you literally do not touch the grass,” he says. “You are either on cement, tile, or steel the entire time, and I think that really triggered something in my mind about what happens when someone takes away your access to nature.”
There were many other things that would trigger small protests in Barry Pfundt’s mind. Garbage duty, for example.
“Every day they take all the garbage and they throw it over the back of the ship,” he says. “And they say it’s rigged to sink. It’s not rigged to sink. They just throw garbage overboard and you can see garbage floating away. And this is so antithetical to the ethic—at least on my commercial fishing boat—where our livelihood is tied to nature, so we need to take care of it and respect it.”
Barry credits his father for instilling “an old school conservation ethic, you know, ‘turn off the lights, turn off the water, don’t litter.’”
“A lot of the environmental ethic today is framed as a moral issue,” Barry added. “For my dad it was very much an economic imperative, to conserve.”
His growing alienation with life in the Navy was about more than the myth of sinking garbage. It was also about the nature of war and his emerging view that he, and all soldiers and sailors, were pawns in senseless geopolitical disputes. There was, for example, Saddam Hussein’s scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait in 1991, when the Iraqis ignited over 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, causing widespread ecological damage. When he talks about it, Barry’s reflection sweeps past contemporary issues of patriotism to ancient admonitions about the evils of warfare.
“The animals don’t have a choice,” he says, “and they’re subjected to this even more than the people. Because I can stop, and the people on the other side can stop. The animals have no choice.”
After boot camp and schooling in Orlando, Barry was sent to upstate New York to continue his training as a nuclear reactor operator and electrician. He was eventually assigned to a nuclear-powered, guided missile cruiser, the U.S.S. Mississippi, based in Norfolk, Virginia. The Mississippi would be decommissioned during Barry’s service, and he would be transferred to an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, one of the largest military ships ever built.
When he was on leave after boot camp, Barry went home to Bellingham and accompanied his mother to a garden show. There just happened to be a Sierra Club booth at the show, and, intrigued by the environmental group’s presence and message, he signed up, to be a Sierra Club member. That brought him Sierra Club literature including the Club’s first-rate magazine and that, he says, “kind of changed everything” in terms of opening up broader dimensions and richer narratives about how to view world events, and especially those that affect the environment.
“I think my upbringing had taught me to look at things critically,” he says, “and about this time I started to take it to the next level.”
There were other ways that Barry was seeing the world. After completing his training, before being assigned to the U.S.S. Mississippi, he traveled Europe, visiting Holland, Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Ireland.
His travels and his conversations along the way, he says, caused him to reflect upon how people across the globe have so much more in common than they do in differences.
“It just made my world so much bigger and my thoughts larger as far as the significance of my place in the world,” he says.
The young sailor was in the midst of this personal evolution when he and his shipmates made a cameo appearance in what is now just a minor footnote in the colorful U.S. relationship with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In early 1996, a Miami-based organization called “Brothers to the Rescue” began a series of provocative intrusions, flying small planes to Cuba and dropping leaflets from the skies over Havana. In late February two of the planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force, provoking an international crisis.
Aboard the Mississippi, Barry and his shipmates were at their battle stations, providing air support just over the horizon, as a flotilla of “Brothers to the Rescue” boats went to place a wreath in disputed waters, to honor the death of the four pilots who’d been killed.
“Things were pretty tense, at least that’s what it felt like aboard our ship,” he recalls. He admits to being scared and “appalled” at the strong possibility of an attack by Cuban forces, and that he and other young men were being used as pawns in a senseless conflict. He was also deeply unsettled by the sense of excitement for battle among some of his shipmates.
“Have you ever heard of a lucky shot?” he remembers thinking. “Will you be excited when a missile tears through the bulkhead right next to you? Is this worth it?”
“The Navy taught me a lot. Maybe it wasn’t what they intended to teach me, but they taught me a great deal about being a person and I really value that experience. I came out with a profound respect and, to some degree, an affinity for veterans and what they go through.”–Barry Pfundt
For Barry, it was just another telling twist in a quiet but inexorable inner rebellion. After four years, with two remaining on his enlistment he approached a Navy Judge Adjutant General (JAG) and announced he was seeking conscientious objector status. The JAG replied that he couldn’t help him, but did point him to the regulations outlining the process for seeking his release from the Navy as a conscientious objector.
What he quickly learned is that it wouldn’t be easy, especially since he’d volunteered to be in the service (as opposed to being conscripted) and had served four years. He would have to undergo evaluations by a psychologist and a Navy chaplain, and also carefully build a case explaining how he had changed.
“I’m not naturally a self-reflective person,” Barry says, but the process of applying for conscientious objector status, “forced me to do that, to write it out, and that’s part of why it’s easy for me to tell this part of my story. Because I had to write it out.”
The psychological exam confirmed he was not mentally ill; that his beliefs were sincere and deeply held. His encounter with the chaplain was not only cordial but the chaplain wound up supporting his application as a conscientious objector. Still, it chafed Barry that the criteria for conscientious objector status was weighted toward those who could root their objections in their religious affiliation. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and he resented the implication that his objections were less valid because they weren’t tied to religious beliefs.
“I think my upbringing had taught me to look at things critically,” Barry says, explaining why a quite inner rebellion took hold during his service in the Navy. “And about this time I started to take it to the next level.”
Ultimately, his petition and the evaluations were handed to a senior JAG officer. Here his commendable service record worked against him, because it seemed to indicate that his conscience wasn’t so troubled as to effect his performance.
“She termed me an atheist,” Barry says, “and she said an atheist couldn’t be a conscientious objector.”
Knowing what he knows now—after having been to law school—Barry says the determination by the senior JAG officer probably violated his constitutional rights under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. But that’s now. Back then he felt he had no recourse—he would have to serve out the remaining two years of his enlistment, and try to make the best of it. It would be a challenge. By then he was on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and the massive, Nimitz-class carrier was about to be dispatched to the Persian Gulf.
“I had some sleepless nights thinking to myself, ‘do I stop? do I refuse to leave my bunk?’”
What helped get him through was perspiration, not so much his sweat but that of the other 5,500 sailors and airmen on board.
“They say it’s the desert in the Persian Gulf,” Barry says, “but if you’re floating on the water, the desert is incredibly humid because the desert just sits there and evaporates. So it’s like a hundred and some degrees and ninety percent humidity. It was nasty–heat to a whole other extreme.”
And that meant a cascade of sweat-soaked uniforms being routed to the ship’s laundry, so much so that each department, including Barry’s, had to donate a person to help with the laundry duties.
He readily volunteered. Laundry is laundry, he reasoned: “If I stop, it wouldn’t affect anything. So I kept doing that.”
It was enough to get him through the deployment to the gulf and through the remainder of his obligation to the Navy.
As difficult as it was, he says, he wouldn’t trade his experience:
“The Navy taught me a lot. Maybe it wasn’t what they intended to teach me, but they taught me a great deal about being a person and I really value that experience. I came out with a profound respect and, to some degree, an affinity for veterans and what they go through.”
His empathy and sense of connection with military veterans would actually help him later on. But now, after his honorable discharge, he was primed to give college a second try. This time it took.
He was technically still on what the Navy calls “terminal leave” at the end of his service when he attended his first class at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Except his first class, in environmental science, didn’t meet on campus. For the first two weeks, the class convened up on the flanks of Mount Rainier. When he talks about it he can’t help bursting into laughter, because the transition out of the Navy to Evergreen State College was just as jolting as the transition from Alaska to Orlando on the way into the Navy.
“I can’t totally explain it,” Barry says, “but I had a lot of energy and I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to take what I’d learned in the Navy and apply it for good purposes. And make the world a better place.”
An aptitude test he’d taken in the Navy pointed him toward the law as a potentially promising career path. But before Barry made his way to Gonzaga Law School, he found a fruitful series of jobs in government and politics. His entry into this world came when he applied for a military veterans work study position offered by then-U.S. Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat who represented Washington’s Third District, encompassing most of southwest Washington, from Olympia south to the Columbia River.
Barry’s work on Veterans issues led to him being promoted to serve as a field representative for the Congressman, a job that placed him at the grassroots level of constituent service and problem-solving. He held this position during two earth-shattering events: the Nisqually earthquake in February, 2001, that caused hundreds of injuries and extensive property damage, and the infamous 9/11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
What he discovered, in the process, is that he loved what he was doing.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do,” Barry says. “I was making a difference and I was making the government work for the people that it is meant to serve.”
Unfortunately, his relationship with Baird became strained in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Out of respect for the Congressman, Barry won’t discuss the details of their disagreements, except to say that Baird and he held different views on the sorts of questions the nation should be asking itself in the aftermath of the attacks.
I started to ask Barry how he reacted to the national “blood lust” for revenge following the 9/11 attacks. He quickly clipped the tail off my question.
“I did not share that,” he said crisply, adding that neither did many of the people in the 3rd Congressional District. The upshot was that he and Baird decided it was time for Barry to move on. He stayed in politics, and went right to work for a “blue dog” Democrat, state Senator Georgia Gardner, whose district encompassed his hometown of Bellingham. She was up for re-election in 2002 and the campaign, he said, was so “brutal” that it opened his eyes to how raw and ugly electoral politics can be. When the election was over, and Gardner had lost a close race, Barry went to work for then Governor Gary Locke as a staff person doing work similar to that he’d found so enjoyable working for Congressman Baird. Once again, he was trying to use the offices of government to help people solve problems.
One thing he noticed is that a lot of people reaching out to the Governor’s office for help really needed a lawyer. And he began to make regular referrals to the Northwest Justice Project, the state’s publicly-funded legal assistance program devoted to helping low income people and families.
“I actually called CLEAR [the Justice Project’s hotline] one day and asked them, ‘so what do you guys do?’ and that’s how I learned about it,” Barry says, “And I was like, that’s what I want to do. So that’s when I decided to apply to law school.”
He was now thirty years old. As he waited to gain acceptance to a law school, he sought and took a position with Climate Solutions. Climate Solutions is a regional non-profit organization, born in Olympia in the late 1990s, that works to confront global climate change. One of the young organization’s focus areas is to modernize the nation’s electrical power grid to increase efficiency and make it easier for renewable electricity sources to plug in and market their power. This was an area where Barry’s naval training and experience as an electrician proved valuable. He had just moved to Spokane to open up a Climate Solutions office on the east side of the state when he learned that he’d been accepted by the Gonzaga Law School. It was not an opportunity he was going to miss.
Those of us at the Center for Justice met Barry Pfundt five years ago when, as part of his schooling at Gonzaga, he took a position as a CFJ intern. As he was becoming a lawyer, he was also becoming a husband and a father. It was a rich period in his life and, even as an intern, he made formidable contributions to the Center’s work.
One of the cases Barry got deeply involved in, in 2008, was a highly-publicized plan to bring a DVD manufacturer, BlueStar Technologies into the Commercial Building at First & Madison.
“I just had a feeling that something stank,” Barry says, “and fortunately, the lawyers and advocates here supported me in looking into it. And it did stink.”
What didn’t smell right is that there were over 200 low-income tenants being evicted from the Commercial Building even though the building had recently been renovated with publicly-subsidized, low interest loans, and even though several of the tenants were being evicted before the terms of their leases expired. After the Center for Justice was alerted by displaced tenants about what was occurring, Barry was sent to accompany some of the tenants to a meeting about their removal and relocation. The meeting’s organizers ordered him to leave.
“Then we knew there was a problem,” says CFJ attorney Jeffry Finer.
The Center eventually filed a lawsuit on behalf of two of the displaced tenants and would likely have pursued a class action lawsuit on behalf of multiple tenants were it not for an adverse ruling from the federal judge hearing the case.
“What happened in that case is that the court agreed with us that the individuals who had lengthy leases were not given proper notice and their leases were not honored,” Finer explains. “The court determined, however, that there was no remedy for that, that it was essentially too bad. And the shocker of it [the ruling] is that it’s just a fundamental concept for most students in law school, and most lawyers out of law school, that if there’s a legal right, there’s a remedy when the right’s denied. What the judge here said was ‘yes, I see the right, I see it was violated, but the remedy is unavailable.’” It was unavailable because, by that time, the publicly-subsidized housing space in the building had been gutted.
The judge’s decision in the Commercial Building case came after Barry’s internship had ended. The ruling was a bitter disappointment to him and the Center’s legal team. But if there was a silver lining in the case, it was in what the battle revealed about Barry Pfundt’s heart, skills and persistence. The Center’s legal challenge ultimately resulted in a modest settlement for the two tenants named as plaintiffs and former CFJ executive director Breean Beggs credits Pfundt’s passion for pushing the fight to protect the tenants rights when it didn’t seem like anyone else was looking out for their interests.
“Working with Barry was a delight,” adds Finer, “partly because he’s got energy, and he’s got vision, and he’s very committed. I can’t imagine asking for more than that.”
After graduating and passing the state bar exam Barry went to work at the Northwest Justice Project, the organization whose work originally inspired him to become a lawyer. Not that anyone had forgotten his storied internship at the Center for Justice, but his work and leadership at Northwest Justice was duly noted by attorney Rick Eichstaedt. When Rick was chosen as the Center’s new executive director last February, he began attending regularly scheduled regional planning meetings for service providers like Northwest Justice and the Center for Justice. And there was Barry Pfundt.
“Just the ideas he was bringing to the table, the excitement, it was really refreshing,” Rick said, “and this despite the fact that he was one of the most junior members of NJP. He just came to the table brimming with ideas and really helped drive the regional planning process.”
No one was happier than Eichstaedt when Pfundt’s resumé showed up after the Center announced it was seeking an attorney to replace Jennifer Slattery who left earlier this summer for New York.
“Barry’s experience at Northwest Justice was just the type we wanted in this position,” Rick says. “He had litigation experience, he’d dealt with the kind of social justice issues he’s tackling now, here at the Center. Not only that, but the Center is going through a lot of growth and changes and struggles as part of the natural life of a non-profit. And it really helps us to have another lawyer on staff who understands non-profits, understands fundraising, and understands what we need to do to be viable in the community is another really valuable skill.”
When I asked him why he’d wanted to return to the Center to do his work, Barry talked about his enthusiasm for the Center’s multi-dimensional approach to legal issues, social problems, and the relationships between the two. He also spoke of his persisting passion to help people solve problems.
“I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he said. “The ability to help individuals in crisis work their way through problems or at least give them the opportunity to get their lives back on track is an amazing, addictive thing to do.”