Veterans Day is a day to celebrate, says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sally Stenton, a Rutgers Law alumna who dealt with a tragic experience in Afghanistan by helping other veterans
By Sam Starnes GSN’04
Sally Stenton was serving as a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) in Afghanistan in 2011 when a gunman massacred eight of her fellow Airmen and a U.S. civilian contractor with whom she worked. She lost close comrades that day, including her best friend. “It was, needless to say, not just the worst day of my life, but the worst of many people’s lives,” she says.
Due to a last-minute change to a mission, Stenton, who had earned a J.D. from Rutgers Law School in Camden in 1990 before beginning her Air Force legal career, was not in her office across the hall from the Afghan Command and Control Center in Kabul where the massacre occurred. “I suffered for a very long time, and I still do, to a certain extent, with survivor guilt,” Stenton says. “I wondered why I survived, and they didn’t.”
When Stenton retired the following year from the Air Force, she found a way to assuage the pain of her loss by helping other veterans. She earned accreditation to represent veterans seeking VA compensation and pension benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then, she has represented hundreds of veterans with claims and appeals. In 2021 alone, she helped 75 of her veteran clients win more than $1 million in awards. “I found my purpose, my passion in life,” she says. “Over the eight years that I’ve been doing this, I get the feedback that I’ve helped so many veterans, and I love it. I know that I have changed veterans’ lives.”
Stenton, a native of Cherry Hill who now lives in Winslow, New Jersey, was working as an investigator for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and serving in the National Guard in the late 1980s when she applied to Rutgers Law School in Camden. After earning her law degree, she went on to an accomplished 21-year-career with the Air Force, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. She spent about half of her service overseas. In addition to Afghanistan, she served in Germany, Turkey, and Kuwait. Since retiring, she has taught a “Military Law” course as an adjunct faculty member at Rutgers Law in Camden.
In addition to representing veterans today, she is involved with veterans organizations and supports veterans causes. She recently attended a ceremony in Washington commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Military Women’s Memorial at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. When that memorial opened in 1997, she was there with her mother, Dolores (Katz) Stenton, a veteran who had served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. The recent celebration, Stenton says, was on her late mother’s 103rd birthday.
Although Memorial Day is sad for her, Stenton says that she celebrates Veterans Day “like it’s bigger than my birthday. It’s my holiday. I spend it with friends, and I go out to breakfast, I go out to lunch, I go out to dinner.”
She says the reason she remains committed to celebrating veterans is simple. “We wouldn’t have our country if it weren’t for our veterans,” Stenton says. “Rutgers is one of the oldest universities in our country. It’s because of people in the military who protect our country that we have these institutions of higher learning. We are a democracy today, and it’s because of our veterans. I’ve been in foreign countries that don’t have the right to vote, they don’t have a free press, they don’t have freedom of religion, and they don’t have institutions of higher learning. Veterans are why we have places like Rutgers.”
Explore resources for veterans who are Rutgers University alumni.