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After the Bar

Public Service

ABE Opportunity Grant Supports Connecticut Veterans Legal Center to Help Veterans Obtain Discharge Upgrades

Ashleigh Michele Backman

ABE Opportunity Grant Supports Connecticut Veterans Legal Center to Help Veterans Obtain Discharge Upgrades Productions

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Too many servicewomen and men who protect our country return to civilian life only to find they lack access to basic care for their service injuries. Alarming numbers of veterans struggle with PTSD, addiction, depression, traumatic brain injury, and other invisible wounds. More than 272,000 post‐9/11 veterans have received less than honorable discharges, often due to symptomatic behavior connected to service‐related PTSD or traumatic brain injury, thus excluding them from life-saving services and benefits.

Connecticut Veterans Legal Center

Lawyers across the country have heard the call to help veterans obtain a discharge upgrade, a highly specialized area of veterans’ law. Our organization, the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC), knew that if we could provide free, expert level, easily accessible training and support on a national level, we could marshal those lawyers’ talents and goodwill. The first step was developing a comprehensive Discharge Upgrade Manual, which we completed in early 2020. But we knew the manual wasn’t enough.

ABE’s Opportunity Grant Program

In late 2019, we became aware of the American Bar Endowment’s Opportunity Grant Program. We knew that this grant could help us turn the manual into compelling training webinars to deliver to lawyers across the country. In February of 2020, we received the fantastic news that the American Bar Endowment awarded us a grant. The ABE’s funding has allowed us to develop and implement in-depth, on-demand training videos for the legal issues in each chapter of the manual, building a pro bono national network. Together with powerful veteran client testimonials, these training videos are posted on our national Veterans Inclusion Project website, so pro bono attorneys can easily access them. These pro bono attorneys now serve low-income veterans who have been unjustly denied access to healthcare, disability benefits, and supportive services due to their military discharge status.

Veteran G’s Story

One of the clients, G., a woman veteran, was denied Veterans Administration (VA) benefits for eight years due to an unjust “other than honorable” discharge. Veteran G began active duty service in the US Marine Corps. Shortly after enlisting, it was clear she was a leader; she exceeded performance expectations and graduated first in her class from the Military Occupational Specialities. During training for deployment, an 80-pound metal pole struck her jaw. After deployment to Iraq, she developed undiagnosed PTSD and used prescription painkillers to cope. She courageously asked her commander for help but was denied support. After her unjust discharge, she struggled to cope with symptoms of PTSD from combat. She turned to the VA for help but was turned away and denied care because of her discharge status. During the eight years that she was locked out of VA care, she suffered bouts of homelessness and lacked the mental health services she needed to heal from her service-connected injuries.

Veteran G. bravely connected with CVLC to challenge this injustice. CVLC worked with Veteran G. through the recharacterization process to obtain access to benefits while trained pro bono attorneys began pursuing her discharge upgrade paperwork. The VA recently reviewed Veteran G’s discharge status, determining it to be honorable for accessing full VA benefits, including healthcare. The client reported to us, “I’m really lucky I found these people, and they were willing to help me.” Today, with access to healthcare and disability benefits, she can focus on herself and her recovery. Veteran G is now pursuing her education as a veterinarian student.

Get Involved

Without help from a lawyer, fewer than 50 percent of veterans seeking discharge upgrades prevail; most claims are denied for procedural reasons. With fewer than 40 veteran legal clinics nationwide providing discharge upgrade representation, the need is significant to ensure justice for our nation’s heroes.

We learned from the ABE that the Opportunity Grants are possible because ABE insureds participate in ABE-sponsored insurance plans and donate their dividends. We are grateful to those lawyers for their support. We invite those ABE Insureds and members of the Young Lawyers Division to join our national cadre of trained lawyers who help deliver justice to veterans like G. If you are interested in being a pro bono lawyer for veterans—you can do most of the work from your desk—please consider volunteering.

The Military Discharge Upgrade Legal Practice Manual, published by the American Bar Association and written by attorneys from the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic and Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, is a comprehensive guide to representing veterans with less-than-honorable or otherwise stigmatizing discharges before military review boards. This landmark publication—the first of its kind in 30 years—serves as a desktop reference for anyone interested in advocating for veterans, restoring honor to those who have served, and opening doors to life-altering support.

The Manual is intended to equip and inspire attorneys to commit to pro bono work on behalf of veterans facing these unfair discharges, which disproportionately affect veterans who experienced trauma (such as combat trauma and military sexual trauma), mental health conditions or medical conditions (such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury), or discrimination (such as discrimination based on race, sex, and LGBTQ+ status). 

The ABA Military Pro Bono Project—managed by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP)—accepts case referrals from military attorneys on behalf of junior-enlisted, active-duty military personnel facing civil legal issues, and it works to place these cases with pro bono attorneys. The Project is also the platform for Operation Stand-By, through which military attorneys and other pro bono attorneys may seek attorney-to-attorney guidance.