A recent conference co-sponsored by the West Haven-based Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and New York City Bar Justice Center highlights the complex and pervasive legal problems faced by veterans of America’s recent wars. The conference findings make a compelling case that our bench, bar and political leaders should work together to find solutions for returning vets who face an array of physical, mental health and legal problems for which there are no easy answers and no single institution to which they can turn for assistance.
Like many citizens, veterans face legal challenges involving family matters, housing, government benefits and involvement with the criminal justice system. What makes veterans’ legal problems more challenging is that many returning vets suffer severe mental health problems as result of their wartime experience. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and that some 12 percent to 15 percent of the veterans of the Gulf and Iraq wars are burdened with significant mental health issues. These issues frequently result in a veteran being discharged less than honorably which, in turn, results in their being denied veterans benefits that would assist in their transition back to civilian life and in addressing the underlying issues that contribute significantly to their involvement in the civil and criminal justice systems.
Recognizing the need to provide legal assistance to veterans at a time when the demand for pro bono legal services has easily outstripped supply, a number of legal service organizations and prominent law firms have attempted to provide legal support to veterans. The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, and the law firms of Robinson & Cole and McCarter & English, among others, have made significant contributions to this effort and deserve our support and praise.
More, however, is needed. At a time when cynical politicians are all too ready to use veterans as props in their ideological wars, we call upon our political, judicial and bar leaders to work cooperatively to meaningfully address the special legal needs of veterans, most of whom are simply unable to afford today’s market prices for legal services and whose unique constellation of problems calls out for special, individualized attention.
There is ample precedent for such an initiative. For many years, the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, the Division of Criminal Justice and the Office of Chief Public Defender have annually hosted a one-day “Stand Down” during which veterans have their low-level criminal and motor vehicle cases disposed of at a court specially convened at the Connecticut State Veterans Home in Rocky Hill. As worthy as this project is, our veterans however deserve a much more comprehensive and holistic solution to their legal challenges.
As the legislative session approaches and the economy continues to grow, the legislature should consider funding a modest number of dedicated attorney positions within legal services organizations. The University of Connecticut Law School is undertaking a comprehensive review of its clinical and experiential learning programs. We suggest that a veterans clinic be added to the discussion list. And members of the bar, who give so generously to pro bono activities and are constantly beseeched to do more, should also consider what additional involvement and support it can provide.
Because the problems identified at the recent veterans conference are both compelling and complex and because the solutions will require the cooperative effort of public agencies and private resources, we encourage our leaders to work together to immediately identify and implement a comprehensive package of initiatives to address the growing legal needs of Connecticut’s vets. •