After two tours in Vietnam, one veteran waited decades to hear five simple words: “thank you for your service.” Last February, former Army Captain Mike Miranda gave Army Major Gen. Gil Beck those thanks––along with free meals, legal assistance, and college tennis tickets.
Miranda, a 3L, is president of Wake Forest University School of Law’s Veterans Advocacy Law Organization (VALOR). He served two Middle Eastern tours himself, “fortunately while our country was very supportive of its military,” he said. Though Miranda struggled to imagine the older veteran’s experiences, the exchange “clearly meant a lot” to them both.
Several Wake Law students founded VALOR in 2011 “to raise awareness regarding veterans’ issues while providing direct support for local veterans in need,” Miranda recalls. By tirelessly pursuing that mission, VALOR won the ABA Law Student Division’s Judy M. Weightman Memorial Public Interest Award at the 2012 ABA Annual Meeting.
VALOR and its Community Outreach, Military Families, and Veterans Affairs Benefits Committees are “open to all interested students,” Miranda says. The 20 veterans on VALOR’s 85-member roster represent nearly all Wake Law’s veteran students, he believes.
VALOR’s Veterans Awareness Week incorporates different daily events to raise awareness for veterans’ issues and culminates with VALOR’s Annual Veterans Day 5k, benefitting local homeless shelters for veterans. VALOR also hosts free legal clinics for veterans. The success of its inaugural clinic in February 2012 helped VALOR win the Division’s prestigious Public Interest Award.
Miranda quickly shared credit for the event. “I’d really underscore that although VALOR sponsored the clinic, it was a truly collaborative effort, and that’s why it was so successful,” he says. The “collaboration between so many different groups is . . . indicative of Wake Forest’s atmosphere.”
VALOR strategically recruited partners inside and outside Wake Law, including: the Pro Bono Project and Public Interest Law Organization (PILO) student groups, United Way, US Tennis Association, American Legion, VFW, and US and North Carolina Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA).
To maximize the clinic’s benefits for participants, VALOR “built the schedule based on who needed what information,” Miranda explains. Reflecting traditional military efficiency, VALOR’s mandatory pre-registration process required the 30 participating veterans to specify their “areas of legal interest and any specific questions they had for attorneys.”
A local car dealership donated vans to transport the veterans (many of whom were homeless) to and from the free daylong clinic. After welcoming remarks over a continental breakfast, veterans spent 3.5 hours rotating through several classrooms for 20-minute legal workshops. They could also casually peruse an Information Fair in Wake Law’s courtroom.
VALOR members personally facilitated informative workshops “covering various topics, including rights upon police encounter, landlord/tenant law, and estate planning,” Miranda says. While the American Legion and VFW hosted workshops on VA claims, the VA itself taught workshops on common criminal issues.
The Pro Bono Project helped VALOR recruit 12 “supervising attorney volunteers for individualized, one-on-one client counseling” for veterans needing estate plans or other legal advice, Miranda explains. VALOR members assisting at clinical sessions got “great practical experience” and “useful contacts with local attorneys,” he says.
While a fellow veteran donated and cooked lunch for participants, the US Tennis Association distributed free shirts, water bottles, and tickets to that afternoon’s Wake Forest Tennis Match. “Almost all the veterans attended the match,” Miranda reports. VALOR’s total event cost was merely $100, spent on breakfast.
Miranda encourages similar veteran student groups to collaborate with outside organizations. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from anybody, even those not remotely connected to the military,” he says. VALOR officers “were surprised at the entire community’s readiness to lend a hand. . . . People really want to help, but don’t know how. We provided a vehicle for them to contribute and we’ve yet to find anybody to turn us down for anything.”
VALOR hosted another clinic in November 2012 and will definitely continue the daylong clinic next spring “and expand more, depending on community needs,” Miranda says. He has high hopes for VALOR’s continued success. “Our whole university really emphasizes public service . . . and groups jump on without hesitation to help VALOR with current and future events.”
Miranda’s presidential tenure ended in November 2012. He hopes to return to service post-graduation, and his Army JAG Corps application is pending.