Conference Focuses On Legal Problems Of Veterans
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."