At Their Service
Members of the United States Armed Forces choose military service for reasons that are as individual as they are. But what’s common to all is the commitment they make to protect and defend our nation with their very lives, if necessary. So if veterans become disabled or have other issues that result from their service, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is dedicated to providing resources to help them in return.
About 20% of the more than 500,000 veterans residing in Maryland in 2017 already receive some sort of VA benefit, and many more are eligible. But applying for benefits can be an arduous process: veterans who file disability claims with the VA wait six months or more for an initial hearing. And according to a 2016 report issued by the VA, if those claims are denied the average wait time for a veteran’s appeal to be considered is four to five years.
UB law students are tackling this difficult issue via the Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic in the School of Law.
Since 2014 the clinic has provided pro bono legal services to Maryland's veterans, helping them apply for disability payments and pensions they may be entitled to as a result of their service.
Clinic students and their supervisors prepare the extensive and complex documentation their clients need to apply for benefits successfully, and represent clients on appeal when their benefits are denied. They also help wrongfully discharged veterans petition for upgrades to their discharge status; if veterans exit the military under conditions other than honorable, they are not eligible for VA services.
Hugh McClean, director of the clinic and an assistant professor in the law school, says there are many reasons veterans don’t receive what they are owed. One problem is a shortage of lawyers in this area: "There aren't many attorneys who specialize in veteran-specific concerns, and the number who have represented vets in settings such as military discharge review boards is also very small," he explains.
Plus other issues impact veterans' access to benefits, he continues. "A significant number of veterans who may qualify are homeless or are suffering from mental illnesses. Not having access to legal resources and treatment creates barriers to recovery and benefits. We see a real need to reach out to these veterans and provide information and assistance."
AN IDEA THAT'S SPREADING
Having student attorneys represent veterans in court is an idea that is catching on across the country. The National Law School Clinics Consortium, a group that helps law school veteran clinics partner to promote best practices and advocate for changes in legislation, estimates that currently about 25% of the 200 law schools in the U.S. have a program either already operating or under development.
UB's clinic is funded through a generous gift from Bob Parsons, B.S. '75, D.H.L. '08, a veteran who attended the university following his military service. "When our veterans return home from battle or retire from service, we should extend every available resource we can to them, not only because they've earned it but because they deserve it," says American entrepreneur and philanthropist Parsons. "As a Vietnam War-era U.S. Marine and UB graduate, I'm proud of the life-changing services these students are providing to help our veterans on the legal battlefield."
"The role of the attorney is to...help develop evidence to support the veteran's claim, which can be complicated and requires research and analytical skills."
Participating students practice their skills in research, analysis, case file management and oral and written communication. During the semester-long clinic, they spend about 20 hours a week working with clients, in instructional seminars and meeting with their supervisors to discuss cases.
McClean came to UB in 2014 after 10-plus years of active duty in the U.S Air Force. He says well-established legal precedents, supported by a large evidentiary record, make veterans' issues a good training ground for law students. "An interesting aspect of this area of law is that it’s non-adversarial," he explains."The VA has a duty to assist the veteran. When that duty is breached, we litigate. So the role of the attorney is to monitor the process and help develop evidence to support the veteran’s claim, which can be complicated and requires research and analytical skills."
ADAPTING TO CHALLENGES
Rachel Park, J.D. '17, worked in the Veterans Advocacy Clinic during her last semester of law school and says she found the experience extremely rewarding. "I wanted to give back to the men and women in our military," she says. Park became especially sensitive to challenges veterans face when pursuing their cases, including mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"No two veterans are the same even if they're dealing with the same issue," she explains. "One might be better able to keep up with the paperwork and details for his case, and it makes it much more difficult for a veteran if they don’t have good documentation."
Documenting incidents that have taken place years, even decades, earlier can be difficult, Park continues. "There might be discrepancies about the date an injury took place, and we’d have to try to find witnesses to help us figure out when someone was in a particular place, like participating in a training exercise." Adds McClean, "The military is terrific at keeping records but not always great at being able to retrieve them. Finding information that supports a veteran’s case can be an evidentiary scavenger hunt."
In addition, says Park, some clients have repeated their stories many times over the years. "It can be discouraging for them to seem to be starting over," she explains. "I always tried to be as up to speed as possible, to say 'here's what I understand about your case' and then focus on goals and next steps."
Park says she always hoped to be able to resolve cases during her time with clients, but sometimes that didn’t happen. "We invest a lot in our relationships with clients, and not being able to take them to the end is frustrating," she says. "I’d remind myself that I did the best that I could, and now it was in the good hands of another clinic student. Most often the clients are happy for what we are able to do—we develop real emotional ties."
"We invest a lot in our relationships with clients, and not being able to take them to the end is frustrating."
PARTNERING TO EFFECT CHANGE
From the beginning, UB’s clinic has worked alongside other organizations, including nonprofits, social services and those in the legal system, to provide better options and resources for veterans. One exciting initiative, the Veterans Treatment Docket, is a collaborative venture between the District Court of Maryland, Baltimore City, and partners that include UB, the Maryland State Bar Association, the Office of Problem Solving Courts and many other supporting organizations.
The Veterans Treatment Docket uses drug and mental health treatment courts as a model. Through its programs, it allows veterans whose service-related conditions, including substance abuse, appear to have contributed significantly to misdemeanor arrests and/or convictions. If veterans agree to enroll in federally funded treatment programs, they may be able to avoid incarceration.
"This is an exciting new option for us, to be able to represent veterans in treatment courts while they are on probation with the goal of helping them successfully transition back to civilian life," says McClean.
UB’s clinic has also partnered with the Docket to create an affiliated mentoring program, training veteran volunteers to support their fellow veterans as they go through treatment and attend their regular court appearances. "For many, having a veteran in court with them creates a feeling of camaraderie similar to that they experienced in the military," McClean says.
LEGISLATIVE CHANGES CAN TRANSFORM LIVES
Last summer the 9th Annual Veterans' Legal Assistance Conference & Training was held at UB. The conference gathers stakeholders working to influence laws and policies that affect veterans in the state.
"Capitalizing on our location, the conference brings together leaders from the Department of Defense, VA, academia and the private bar to engage in a dialogue about the problems facing veterans. Last June, leaders from the Army, Navy and Air Force discharge review boards were all discussing military discharges with the veteran community. It was incredible," McClean says.
Park hopes that ongoing legislative updates will improve the odds and shorten wait times for veterans seeking benefits. But in the meantime, clinic students will continue to make a difference.
She mentions one of her cases where a veteran’s less than honorable discharge was due to his sexual orientation. "In the days of 'don’t ask don't tell' that was an issue but it wouldn’t be now," Park explains. "Getting the discharge status changed so that this veteran is eligible for benefits will be life changing for him, and a wonderful outcome for us."