August 12, 2017

Panelists discuss ways to meet the legal needs of veterans

There is an “astronomical” need for lawyers to do veterans work, said Stephen C. Zollman, Law Offices of Stephen C. Zollman, during an Aug. 10 panel discussion on serving veterans’ legal needs at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York. 

Veterans and the Courts: Serving Those Who Have Served” was hosted by the ABA Judicial Division.

Treatment courts have been a particularly effective in meeting the needs of veterans. Judge Robert Russell, who established the nation’s first veterans’ treatment court in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., explained that the court is a hybrid of a drug court and mental health court and provides an alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans who may be struggling with disorders and traumas from military service.

The court works with various government agencies to connect veterans with the programs, services and benefits they need, including therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.

Every veteran is given a mentor as a coach. “The secret sauce is the veterans who volunteer,” explained Brigadier General (ret.) Loree Sutton, commissioner for the New York City Department of Veterans Services, partially crediting the success of the program to its “phenomenal” peer-to-peer mentoring.

Stressing the important role of mentoring, Sutton said many veterans who are homeless or struggling in general with life circumstances fear self-identifying because they may have had a negative discharge or do not want to revisit their military records because of varying issues.

“It really takes all of us to do this work,” Renato L. Izquieta, directing attorney at Legal Aid Society in Orange County, Calif., said.  Leveraging collaborations with different resources and being innovative about the treatment courts is important, he emphasized.

Sutton said coordinating these collaborative services is also critical, as most veterans and their families say that navigating the system of veteran services is especially challenging.

Brett Walker, assistant district attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston discussed the cultural challenges of disenfranchised veterans. He said some veterans don’t consider themselves veterans and may not identify as such because they didn’t fight in a war or because they lost the war.

He gave some pointers for how judges, lawyers and others in the court system can identify veterans:

  • Look for a KIA bracelet;
  • Look for a woven rope bracelet;
  • Fashion that may be from a decade ago;
  • The use of the terms, “sir,” and “ma’am;”
  • The use of certain vocabulary, such as “overseas” instead of “other countries;”
  • They may put one arm behind their back when standing;
  • May have a tattoo of a crest, shield, or have numbers with a hyphen, which may be associated with a unit number.

Walker who counsels soldiers, said one of the most traumatic challenges for a veteran is pondering the question, “where do I go now” after being discharged.

He said some soldiers may feel ostracized in their own veteran community because they fought in a different war or may not have won the war they fought, so, some feel ashamed.

Zollman said it’s sometimes difficult for veterans to get their proper benefits because of what’s on their DD 214, discharge papers.

“It’s make or break,” Zollman said.

He added that exploring discharge upgrades are important to the well-being a veteran.

Sutton added that there are instances where people have received less than honorable discharges because of brain injuries that were not recognizable at the time.

She said they may need to be redressed.

Michele Haggerty, a legal community specialist for Retreat Addiction Centers, said she works in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, two parts of the country that are challenged in meeting the needs of veterans, especially with the uptick in opioid addiction.

“I’m glad to hear that judges and lawyers are willing to work with various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, to help meet the needs of deserving veterans.”

Doug Humphreys, principal member of the Veterans’ Review Board, in Sydney, Australia, said if someone only serves one day in the military, that soldier and his or her family can immediately access mental health treatment and other veteran benefits.

He said the country has seen “better outcomes” by getting people into treatment earlier than later.