Blog

A Warrior for Veterans

Legal Services Center Staff Attorney Evan Seamone was first attracted to the military growing up in Los Angeles, joining the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) in high school when he discovered that students from all walks of life, including many undocumented immigrants, were part of the program.

“Students teaching students, melting pot happening – sign me up,” Seamone remembers thinking at the time.

And when the Junior ROTC brought in a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps officer as part of a Vietnam War court martial simulation, Seamone found his calling.

Seamone brings 15 yeaEvan Seamoners of experience as a military lawyer to his role in the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) of Harvard Law School. He has served in the Army in Iraq, in Germany, and on U.S. military bases, working on cases ranging from sexual assault to the death penalty. Seamone continues to serve his country as a member of the Reserve JAG Corps, and periodically is called away to represent military personnel.

He also brings academic expertise to his role at LSC, having previously served as Professor and Director of the Legal Writing Program at Mississippi College School of Law, as well as supervising students in that school’s Veterans Law Clinic.

Since joining Harvard in May 2017, Seamone has helped dozens of former U.S. military members fight discrimination, obtain benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), and gain a sense of support in the veteran community.  His work is supported through a generous grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. The grant funds legal assistance to veterans seeking services such as VA healthcare, housing and education assistance, discharge status upgrades, and general legal representation.

Reaching Out

At LSC, Seamone has dedicated his time to advocating for the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable veterans, including LGBTQ veterans, incarcerated veterans, and victims of military sexual trauma (MST).

He has found that those most in need of help are often those least able to access basic health care and financial services from the VA.

Consequently, he has spearheaded several targeted outreach efforts, engaging with local Veterans’ Centers, attending community events in Boston, meeting with veterans who are incarcerated in county jails, and visiting neighborhoods where vets have struggled to access resources and obtain benefits.

Seamone recounts attending community events at local supermarkets, homeless shelters, and even local attractions like the Franklin Park Zoo in an attempt to identify veterans in need of services. “I walk the line and ask, ‘Are you a veteran, have you served in the military?’” he explains.

He has also dedicated much of his time to communicating with incarcerated veterans.  At the Middlesex House of Corrections, about 30 veterans are housed together in a specialized unit called HUMV, the first correctional unit in Massachusetts specifically designed for individuals who have served in the military.  Seamone meets with them regularly, and is currently working on developing transition plans for these veterans so that they are better able to take advantage of resources and benefits upon release.

Seamone notes these incarcerated individuals face especially harmful stigma.  Many feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation and are reluctant to even identify as veterans.  As Seamone explains, “they have the identity of someone who fights to defend values of the country, not someone who violates them.”

Doing Away with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

One of his major efforts is now focused on identifying veterans who have suffered the repercussions of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and its precursors. These discriminatory policies prevented members of the LGBTQ community from serving in the military or, often, had the effect of driving out of the military those who served while hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Seamone emphasizes that negative byproducts of discriminatory policies like DADT have included surveillance and interrogations, civilians and service members ‘informing’ command about homosexual activity, non-sexual extortion, and sexual assault.

Moreover, LGBTQ veterans who were forced to conceal their sexual identities due to DADT face elevated risk of panic attacks, PTSD, depression, suicide and substance abuse.

More than 114,000 gay and lesbian soldiers had been forced out of the military, many with less than honorable discharges, from the 1940s to the time that DADT was rescinded by President Obama in 2011. Even if an individual received an honorable discharge, their discharge papers may mention “homosexuality” as a reason for leaving the military, which can create stigma when applying for a job or accessing medical or other veterans’ benefits.

Moreover, there persists a sense of alienation for many LGBTQ service members: many feel unwelcome in the military community because of their sexual orientation, and may not receive a warm reception within the LGBTQ community because of their military affiliation.

This ‘double closet’ creates a situation in which veterans “face additional risks beyond those normally faced by non-LGBTQ veterans, such as PTSD from combat,” says Seamone.

To address these problems, Seamone is working to reach out to this community and help them obtain the upgrades to which they are entitled.

Seamone has engaged with such local organizations as OUTVETS and Veterans Legal Services, keeping an open line of communication with LGBTQ and veterans’ community leaders.

In February, Seamone and colleagues from LSC’s Veterans Legal Clinic convened a community event for nearly 50 individuals who serve the veterans’ community in Massachusetts to identify ways to conduct more effective outreach to LGBTQ veterans.

In addition to that, a “Hack-a-Thon” was organized as part of Harvard Law School’s alumni weekend in April to engage both experts and Harvard Law School alums to brainstorm ideas for reversing the adverse effects of years of discrimination in the military against members of the LGBTQ community.  These negative effects range from vets being denied years of veterans’ benefits due to less than honorable discharges to being at increased risk of suicide and a host of medical problems because of how they were treated while in service, when discharged, and once leaving the military.

Having set a goal to increase the Veterans Legal Clinic’s outreach efforts by 20 percent, Seamone has far exceeded that benchmark, achieving a 100 percent increase.  Seamone estimates that in all, he is providing individualized service in one way or another to over 60 veterans at any given time.

In the Trenches: Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

While Seamone’s work is focused around LGBTQ vets and other veterans groups who need legal help, it is not his only interest. He recently published a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Law & Education entitled “In the Trenches of Legal Academia: Recognizing and Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Law Students Who Have Served in the Nation’s Armed Forces.”

The publication surveys existing research and offers potential prescriptions for easing problems faced by vets suffering from traumatic brain injury or PTSD who are navigating the high-pressure environment of law school.

A Holistic Approach to Helping Veterans

To speak to Seamone is to realize how fulfilled he is by his work, and to understand the energy and passion he puts into every case.

Seamone recognizes that it is not always just legal aid, but other forms of assistance that may drastically improve a client’s life. He adopts a holistic approach, going into each case asking, “What is it that this client needs and how can we meet those needs?”

As he puts it, although he is an attorney and not a social worker or mental health provider, “that doesn’t mean I can’t benefit from the knowledge of other professionals.”

Recognizing that many clients with sensitive issues and traumatic experiences are intimidated by a legal process that can be re-traumatizing, Seamone has developed relationships with mental health providers to provide coordinated care.  This has included offering clients the option of speaking to a counselor to decide how much information they feel comfortable sharing and providing on-site counseling assistance after discussions of particularly traumatic events.

“It’s About the Validation”

Seamone lights up as he speaks about the payoff of his work, explaining that the “breakthroughs” clients have when their cases are resolved are almost always far more meaningful — for him and for the veteran — than any amount of benefits or back pay.

He has come to understand that “it’s not about the money, it’s about the validation…it can give them something they haven’t had for years.”

For veterans to have their stories heard, and to be told that the system has not forgotten them, is a transformative and powerful experience.

Seamone succinctly sums up his work with a simple statement about his clients, yet one that many of them do not hear enough: “They are worth it.”

–Taylor Mahlandt