Conference Focuses On Legal Problems Of Veterans
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.