Much has changed since the 1960s, when battle-weary veterans returned home from Vietnam to be called "baby killers" or worse.
Today, with one in 10 veterans who saw combat Iraq or Afghanistan facing mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a growing focus on providing treatment and counseling for the emotional and physical trauma of war.
One of the largest problems veterans face, especially in Northeast cities where housing costs are high, is homelessness. And those veterans are in dire need of legal representation. Additionally, according to participant at a first-of-its kind conference in New Haven for providers of veterans' legal services, many veterans need help getting the status of their discharge records changed.
"A less than honorable discharge, which is often the result of mental problems, can result in denied veterans benefits," said Margaret Middleton, an attorney and executive director of the West Haven-based Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Discharge appeals are argued before Administrative Discharge Board within the Department of Defense. Middleton said they are a growing part of her center's practice, representing about 15 percent of its caseload. Thanks to Middleton, whose center co-hosted the seminar last week in a conference room in the New Haven offices of Wiggin and Dana, more legal aid groups might be getting involved in discharge appeals.
Among those who attended the conference were legal aid lawyers from 10 different agencies, spanning from Philadelphia to Maine. Those in attendance shared ideas about improving legal services for veterans. All agreed they would like to reach out to private lawyers who might provide bro bono support for veterans in family law cases and landlord-tenant disputes.
The conference, which was sponsored jointly by Middleton's organization and the New York City Bar Justice Center, was seen as an opportunity for attorneys to network and talk strategy, Middleton said.
"I'm so glad I made the trek," said Diane K. Smith, the executive director of Legal Services of Northwest Jersey. "I left with a renewed vigor to pursue this important work."
Smith said her office, like others, focuses on legal issues that are barriers to veterans' self-sufficiency. "Most of these issues involved problems with veterans getting and keeping drivers' licenses, bench warrants, child support and debt collection."
She was especially inspired at the notion of fighting the DOD in appealing less than honorable discharges. "We had not thought about discharge upgrades before," she said. "But now we will definitely be adding that to the work we do here."
Another key topic of discussion was a bill being considered by the U.S. Senate, which would require the Veterans Administration to fund legal services for indigent veterans. "This is something that we're watching; it's been high on the radar," Middleton said. "We discussed our role, as a group of providers, is to demonstrate publicly how much need there is for legal services for veterans."
Participants also talked about the constant challenge of funding. Like many veterans legal aid providers, Middleton's center relies upon pro bono support of lawyer from large law firms like McCarter & English and Robinson & Cole. She explained how her group last year qualified for a federal grant to pay half of the salaries of two veterans legal aid lawyers. But in the end the organization couldn't accept the grant because it couldn't find come up with the matching funds to cover the rest of the salaries.
"It's a sad story," she said.
The keynote address was delivered by Michael Wishnie, a former New York City legal aid lawyer who teaches law and hosts the Veterans Legal Services clinic at Yale Law School. "More legal aid organizations are starting to look at building veterans law clinics," he told the participants. He said the government is taking notice of such efforts: "The reason, I think, is you're starting to get a little dangerous" in the eyes of the Veterans Administration.
Wishnie advised any pro bono or legal aid program that wants to get involved in helping veterans, "to pick one area of practice and stay with it."
For instance, he said, there are an estimated 85,000 Vietnam-era veterans who received less than honorable discharges based on personality disorders. Since PTSD wasn't recognized as a diagnosis by the medical profession until the 1980s, many of those veterans were denied access to health and pension benefits they may have otherwise obtained. And many of them have appealable cases now, Wishnie said.
In response to that situation, he discussed a proposed class action in which the military is being sued for refusing to review or upgrade discharge statuses for veterans with PTSD.
The initial lawsuit was filed by the Yale clinic on behalf of an Army veteran named John Shepherd. The New Haven man was diagnosed with PTSD in 2004, but has been repeatedly denied a discharge upgrade, which could help him access housing, loans and medical care.
According to the lawsuit, since 2003 the Army has approved fewer than 2 percent of applications for discharge upgrades by Vietnam veterans who have PTSD, compared with 46 percent of upgrade applications among more recent veterans.
Of course, discharge appeals aren't the only area of need for veterans. Wishnie's clinic has also gotten involved in a lawsuit seeking public records from the military to study patterns of sexual assaults.
"Veterans legal assistance is in many ways an area of law that is focused on women's rights and discrimination," Wishnie told the conference participants. "Part of our work really is about looking at how the system has failed veterans."
One lawyer who attended the conference said it was great to meet with like-minded peers.
"It was inspiring," said Cathy Wong, an attorney with the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. "I feel like my resource base is so much broader now that I'm in touch with all of these other people who have expertise and passion for this field of practice."•