Lawyers Serving Veterans

On Veterans Day, we as a nation remember the 22 million men and women who are veterans of our military. We should also remember that many of those 22 million need more than our thoughts. They need our help, from lawyers especially.

A recent poll from the Washington Post highlighted the frustration that many veterans feel with our government and the assistance it provides. According to the poll, more than half of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said the government was failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans. 60% of veterans polled said that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was doing an “only fair” or “poor” job in addressing problems faced by veterans. “Overall, nearly 1.5 million of those who served in the wars believe the needs of their fellow vets are not being met by the government.”

Part of the reason might be how much the VA has on its plate. As this CNN article explains, problems have plagued veterans’ affairs for years, starting as early as the Revolutionary War. However as the VA budget has increased and its benefits expanded, many veterans find themselves stuck in the quagmire of applying for VA benefits, not obtaining a response from the VA, appealing VA denials, or unsuccessfully seeking other benefits to which they are entitled under the law. This is where lawyers can help.

Illinois Lawyers Serving Veterans

Illinois lawyers have a long history of assisting veterans. For example, the ISBA Standing Committee on Military Affairs helps the military community throughout the state. The Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF) serves low income veterans, current service members, and military families. And today in Chicago, the John Marshall Law School will open its new Student Veterans Resource Center, a space where law student veterans and active military can connect and study together.

That Resource Center is a high point of seven years of hard and rewarding work done by students, staff and volunteer lawyers at John Marshall’s Veterans’ Legal Support Center & Clinic. Led by Executive Director Brian Clauss, the clinic receives around 1,000 intake requests per year. The clinic helps with all aspects of Veteran Benefits Administration claims, from the initial, factual intake to the technical representation of claims at the appellate level.

While there are staff attorneys who take cases, along with a number of pro bono attorneys who do much of the casework, the heart and soul of the clinic are the student workers who do everything from intake to interviews to case development. As one of the clinic’s students explained,

A lot of veterans don’t even know what they need. They don’t know the process. They try to do it themselves and they’ve gotten the workaround. Having a third party, a fresh pair of eyes, helps. A lot of them have been trying for 20, 30, 40 years and they’re just frustrated because they don’t know the right questions to ask.

The clinic also serves as a referral agency of sorts for veterans. The student explained, “We get calls that are not veteran related and we refer them out to other agencies and they truly appreciate it and are grateful to get the phone number of someone.”

Advocating for Veterans’ Rights

The Veterans Clinic is always looking for lawyers to assist with pro bono matters. However, lawyers are not limited to serving as counsel in benefits appeal cases. As active members of the community and informed members of the public, lawyers are in a unique position to advocate for change to better the everyday lives of veterans in Illinois.

There’s the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law that provides a wide range of protections for active duty and deployed service members, including protection from overdue mortgage payments, unpaid credit card debt, and cell phone termination fees. Clauss wants to see it made into Illinois law. “I think it would allow veterans quicker access to justice,” he says. “Many of them, because they are small debtor-creditor issues, can go right into small claims court.”

There’s also the pay that public sector employees receive when serving in Guard Reserve or on annual training. Illinois passed a law allowing service members to get paid when on duty. However the formula to calculate that pay was never determined. As Clauss recalls, “When that law was passed, the Governor issued an executive order directing the head of Central Management Services and the Comptroller to meet and figure out a formula to calculate that. They did not get to have that meeting. It’s been twelve years … An official determination would be beneficial to every municipality in Illinois because they essentially have to figure it out on their own and there’s a lot of well-meaning people trying to do the right thing but they don’t have any direction on how to calculate it.”

Clauss sees no limit to what lawyers can do to assist veterans. Lawyers can get involved in mass transit initiatives in rural America. “There’s no mass transit in rural America. If you come back injured or ill and you can’t drive, good luck getting to the VA.” Lawyers can join the discussion on Illinois Veterans’ Courts and consider whether violent crimes should come under the courts’ jurisdiction to allow veterans access to diversion/treatment programs.

Lawyers who want to help with Vietnam veterans in particular could work with veterans seeking to appeal their “bad paper.” The issue affects veterans discharged from the military with undiagnosed mental health issues. “Oftentimes these people will not qualify for benefits,” Clauss says. “We need attorneys to do work to get these discharges upgraded so those who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury in Vietnam, 40 years later, can finally get into the VA system.” There’s even a space for corporate lawyers: help veterans do the certification work for state accounting for vet-owned businesses. As Clauss explains, “If you can get certified as a vet-owned business, you can get qualified for certain county contracts. Sometimes it appears daunting to them. Get all my corporate minutes and corporate creation documents and my tax returns, but we can sit them down and help them.”

Lawyers, if you want to help veterans, there is a space out there for you. From pro bono work on behalf of individuals to advocacy on issues, we can all volunteer time to help those who have served our country and preserved the justice system that lies at the heart of our profession. To quote a great Illinois lawyer who knew better than most about the fraught relationship between war and peace,

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Thank you to Karalyn Jevaney, the Commission’s Law School Liaison from John Marshall and student in the Veteran’s Clinic, for coordinating interviews with students and staff at the clinic.

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