Veterans Legal Clinic

Ensuring Veterans Aren’t Left Behind

Steven Kerns, 2L at Harvard Law School

As a veteran, I came to Harvard Law School’s Safety Net Project within the Veteran’s Legal Clinic to help bridge the civilian- military divide. SNP offered me a chance to help civilians and veterans realize some part of the American dream.

The veterans’ clinic serves civilians and veterans alike, and the SNP provides civilians and veterans with guidance through the Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, and poverty prevention processes. We serve a strong legal need: Nearly 70 percent of Social Security applicants have no legal representation.

As a student, the clinic offered me a pathway to maintain the momentum I’d built up establishing my litigation skills in my summer at the California Attorney General’s office. The SNP gives me full responsibility for my cases: preparing an evidentiary record, interviewing clients, writing a legal brief, delivering oral argument, direct questioning of clients, cross-examining experts, and if a case is denied, preparing for the appellate argument.

A veteran recently told me that our team had changed his life. He was fond of saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was falsely imprisoned, sexually assaulted as a child, and tragically self-aware of all of it.

Most painful was his nobility, his gentle demeanor, and his broken strength. He blamed no one. He accepted responsibility for more than just his actions—he accepted responsibility for the world. The military has a way of conditioning many of us not to seek help until it’s too late, to shoulder the blame for circumstances beyond our control— to grin and bear it. It’s our strength in war and, often, our undoing at home.

After combing through more than 500 pages of medical records and recruiting mental health experts to evaluate the long history of impairments and treatment, I put together a written argument that led the administrative law judge to make a decision on the record—telling us on the day of the hearing that he was approving the case for more than eight years of retroactive benefits. This highly unusual move happens only when the ALJ determines the case is clearly in the applicant’s favor and a hearing is no longer necessary.

Our client was spared having to dive deep into his trauma for the record. Realizing this, he was overcome with relief. And while we all shared a brief moment of joy, that veteran’s need is no less important than helping the civilians who walk through our doors. Our communities thrive together.

As President Eisenhower noted in his seminal Cross of Iron speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”

I may not be able to change the status quo, but the SNP empowers me to help Americans left behind by perpetual war. Here, they’re not forgotten. Here, my mission is no different than it was in the Army: to serve the American people.

By: Steve Kerns, J.D. ’20

Excerpt from “Law Students Speak: Why I Do Public Interest Work

Via the American Bar Association for Law Students 

Veterans Legal Clinic to Create Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center

The Veterans Legal Clinic is partnering with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center to significantly advance the practice of discharge upgrade law by developing a comprehensive Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual for veteran advocates and an online, searchable database of published discharge upgrade decisions. This national initiative is funded by the Bob Woodruff Foundation. To learn more about the Manual, click here to read Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s press release.

Margaret Kuzma of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, and Dan Nagin of the Veterans Legal Clinic

Margaret Kuzma of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, and Dan Nagin of the Veterans Legal Clinic

 

 

“The newest Federal Court Experiment”: Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims speaks at Harvard Law School

On Thursday, November 8th, Chief Judge Robert N. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims gave the 2018 Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture at Harvard Law School to an audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the veterans community.  The Chief Judge’s Lecture was entitled “The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims:  The newest Federal Court experiment, past, present and future.” Opening remarks were provided by the National Adjutant of DAV, Marc Burgess.

Chief Judge Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims delivered the 2018 DAV Distinguished Speaker Series Lecture at Harvard Law School

Chief Judge Davis—a Navy veteran who joined the Court in 2004—spoke about the history of veterans law, the origins of the Veterans Court, and present challenges facing the Veterans Court in its role reviewing benefit decisions of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Chief Judge Davis chronicled the evolution of veterans law from World War I to the present day, including discussion of the Veterans Judicial Review Act of 1988 that introduced court review for veterans claims and established the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Chief Judge Davis highlighted the need for continued innovation, noting how much “[o]ur veterans legal landscape has evolved from its early days,” and challenging audience members to use their own voices—as veterans, students, advocates, pro bono attorneys—to prompt the significant change required to provide the services that veterans will need in the future.

Chief Judge Davis also discussed the Court’s structure, accomplishments, and challenges. The Veterans Court is unique in terms of its exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from the Board of Veterans Appeals, as well as the way which the vast majority of appeals are decided by single-judge non-precedential decisions. The Veterans Court has a tremendous caseload, handling over 7,000 cases in 2018. Among its challenges, the Chief Judge stated that the Veterans Court is “grappling with how to efficiently decide more panels, decide class actions, and deal with an increasing case load.”

[A]ny time it takes a veteran years to get a final decision on a claim, the system is broken.

Looking ahead to the future of veterans’ law, Chief Judge Davis stressed the importance of pushing for overhaul of the veterans claims system. He stated that while many veterans are able to navigate the veterans claims system in a reasonable way,“any time it takes a veteran years to get a final decision on a claim, the system is broken.”

He ended his lecture by urging the veterans community to continue working towards positive change in the veterans claims system, pointing to the progressive evolution of veterans law over time. “Veterans law is maturing. The Court has carried out their vision of a place where veterans can go to get fair, efficient justice.” Finally, Chief Judge Davis left the audience with a call to action, declaring “We have a voice. We need to start using it.”

Veterans Court Chief Judge Davis and DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess pose with staff of the Veterans Legal Clinic

After his lecture, Chief Judge Davis answered a range of questions from the audience, including the role of pro bono attorneys at the Court, the impact of presumptive diagnoses for disabilities, and the appellate reforms to be implemented under the Appeals Modernization Act.

The event was hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, in partnership with the HLS Armed Forces Association. The lecture was the 5th annual event in the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored the DAV Charitable Service Trust. The Speaker Series provides a forum for national leaders to address the critical issues facing our nation’s disabled veterans and to engage in conversation with the local community. Prior speakers include then-Secretary of the U.S. Navy Ray Mabus, the founder of the first veterans treatment court Judge Robert Russell, and former VA Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert McDonald.

LSC Engages in Legal Outreach to Homeless Veterans at Stand Down 2018

LSC’s Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, Steve Kerns, and Evan Seamone volunteering at Greater Boston’s Stand Down 2018

A team of volunteer students and staff from LSC partnered with Veterans Legal Services to provide legal advice to over 120 veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness at Greater Boston Veterans Stand Down 2018. The event, which was held on Friday, September 7, at City Hall Plaza, brings together over 100 community providers in order to provide veterans with access to medical, housing, employment, legal, and other services.

Alongside Veterans Legal Services and pro bono attorneys, LSC staff volunteered in the legal assistance tent to advise veterans on areas of law such as VA benefits, Chapter 115 state veterans’ benefits, other public benefits, tax debt issues, and discharge upgrades. In addition to offering legal advice, LSC staff provided referrals to other service providers and in a few cases has followed up to explore potential legal representation.

Clinic Attorney Evan Seamone, whose work is supported through a generous grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in order to provide legal assistance to underserved veterans, reflected on the impact of Stand Down as an outreach event:

In a noteworthy trend this year, a number of veterans at the legal tent shared that they had learned valuable information at the Stand Down after years of failed attempts.  An answer awaited them, but finding it had been a major hurdle.  This year’s Stand Down underscored the incomparable value of concentrating essential services and resources in a single and accessible place.

The event was coordinated by the New England Center and Home for Veterans.  More photos from the event are online here.

Veterans Legal Services, pro bono attorneys, and LSC students and staff at Stand Down 2018

LSC Hiring a Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator (part-time)

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) seeks to hire a part-time Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator to work in the Veterans Legal Clinic.  The Clinic—through which Harvard Law students receive hands-on lawyering opportunities—provides direct legal representation to low-income disabled veterans and their families. The Clinic maintains a diverse docket of cases, including appeals involving federal and state veterans benefits, discharge upgrade and correction of military records cases, and estate planning matters.  The Clinic practices before agencies, in state and federal court, and before Department of Defense tribunals.  Many of the Clinic’s cases raise cutting-edge issues involving the rights of disabled veterans.  The Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator will work closely with clients and Clinic attorneys and will have various responsibilities, including conducting initial client intake phone calls and meetings; screening cases for eligibility; gathering and organizing client documents; maintaining case files; liaising with pro bono attorneys, referral organizations, and other third parties; helping to manage the Clinic’s docket; maintaining the Clinic’s case management system; contributing to community outreach and engagement efforts; and providing administrative support in other respects to the Clinic’s mission. The position represents a unique opportunity to join Harvard Law School’s clinical program, to work in a dynamic public interest and clinical teaching law office, to serve the veterans community, and to develop administrative and advocacy skills. Salary is commensurate with experience.

Minimum Requirements: At least one year relevant experience and strong commitment to serving the veterans community.

Additional Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree preferred, but not required
  • Strong preference for candidates who are veterans or otherwise have a personal connection to the military/veterans community
  • Demonstrated interest in working with the veterans community
  • Commitment to serving low-income communities and persons with disabilities
  • Excellent written, verbal, organizational and interpersonal skills; superior managerial skills; strong attention to detail; knowledge of Microsoft Office Suite and legal case management systems
  • Ability to thrive in a high-volume public interest litigation practice
  • Flexibility and the ability to handle multiple priorities
  • Ability to work well independently and as part of a team

To Apply:  Applications must be submitted via Harvard’s Human Resources website.  The posting and online application portal can be found here (Position ID# 46710BR).

2018 August — Veterans Legal Clinic — Harvard Law School — Intake and Pro Bono Coordinator Position

Estate Planning Project Hiring a Clinical Instructor

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School has an immediate opening for a Clinical Instructor. The position, which is available either as a full-time position or a part-time position, is within the Estate Planning Project of the Veterans Legal Clinic. The Estate Planning Project—through which Harvard Law students also receive hands-on training in lawyering skills—provides free legal representation to low-income disabled veterans on matters such as wills, powers of attorneys, healthcare proxies, living wills, trusts, special needs trusts, guardianships, conservatorships, and probate of estates. The goal of the Project’s representation is to help each veteran attain the maximum degree of control over financial, health, and family decision making. Many of the Project’s clients have multiple service-connected disabilities and/or face chronic or terminal illnesses.

The Clinical Instructor will oversee the Project’s docket, maintain community and pro bono partnerships, represent clients, and train and supervise law students who enroll in the Veterans Legal Clinic and who seek to develop skills in estate planning practice. The position represents a unique opportunity to work in a dynamic public interest law office within Harvard Law School’s clinical program.

Applications must be submitted via Harvard’s Human Resources website. The full posting and online application portal can be found here (Position ID# 46658BR).

 

LSC releases report on LGBTQ Veterans Issues

In collaboration with community partners OUTVETS, and Veterans Legal Services, LSC’s Veterans Legal Clinic recently released a report on how to fully honor the service of LGBTQ veterans, especially those who received less-than-fully honorable discharges from the military. The report summarizes the findings made by participants—including dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans matters from the US and Canada—during a two-day summit at Harvard Law School in April 2018 on the unique issues faced by LGBTQ veterans.

As a result of decades of discrimination against LGBTQ servicemembers, enshrined in military policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and predecessor policies, more than 100,000 servicemembers were discharged prematurely based on their sexual orientation. These discharges not only impose profound stigma on LGBTQ veterans, they also have the potential to erect barriers that prevent LGBTQ veterans from receiving critically needed veterans benefits, healthcare, and supports. Despite the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to this day thousands of LGBTQ veterans are still denied access to essential veterans services—with dire consequences for their mental and physical health, financial wellbeing, and peace of mind.  The Department of Defense’s procedures for changing a veteran’s discharge status remains totally reactive, requiring individual veterans to submit a detailed application rather than identifying and notifying veterans of applicable changes in standards. Once a veteran does apply, it can take between 12 to 18 months just to receive a response. The majority of LGBTQ veterans eligible—estimated to be as many as 92%—have not applied for a discharge upgrade.

Titled “Do Ask, Do Tell, Do Justice: Pursuing Justice for LGBTQ Military Veterans,” this report details the Summit’s findings about how to begin breaking down the considerable barriers LGBTQ veterans face as they pursue justice and access to essential services.  The report concludes that LGBTQ veterans, while far from a homogenous group, do face common challenges as a result of prior discriminatory policies enforced the U.S. military and their ongoing legacies. Many stakeholders are actively working to meet the needs of LGBTQ veterans, but greater coordination between organizations, institutions, and individuals is needed to ensure that all LGBTQ veterans seeking help or supports have meaningful access. The report recommends that current efforts should not just continue, but should be enhanced and expanded:

Advocates for and allies of the LGBTQ veterans community should not be satisfied with the status quo of well-intentioned but (thus far) unsuccessful attempts at federal legislation to remedy the effects of discriminatory discharge policies, nor with the low rate—just 8%—of eligible veterans who actually seek relief through discharge upgrade processes.

The report’s recommendations include proposals for increasing outreach and media coverage, pursuing new litigation strategies, improving cultural competency, and engaging in policy reform and political action.

Read it here: Do Ask Do Tell Do Justice – Summit Report June 2018

LSC, OUTVETS, & Veterans Legal Services Co-Host LGBTQ Veterans Summit

A two-day summit at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA on the unique issues faced by LGBTQ veterans brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans matters from the US and Canada. The group of legal, political, and healthcare experts examined both past and present discriminatory policies — including Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and the proposed U.S. transgender service ban, currently on hold in the courts.

Titled “Do Ask, Do Tell, Do Justice: Pursuing Justice for LGBTQ Military Veterans,” the two-day ideas-in-action summit was co-hosted by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, OUTVETS, and Veterans Legal Services. Also spearheading the event was John R. Campbell, Former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for the Office of Warrior Care and 2017 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow.

Held April 19-20, it brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans’ matters. Participants who shared their stories, experiences, and best practices included representatives from OutServe-SLDN, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, American Veterans for Equal Rights, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Dartmouth Hitchcock, Johns Hopkins, and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, as well as co-hosts OUTVETS, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Veterans Legal Services.

Canadian Attorneys John McKiggan and R. Douglas Elliott offered their perspectives as co-counsel on the groundbreaking matter of Satalic, et al v. Her Majesty the Queen, a successful national class action brought on behalf of current and former LGBTQ employees of the Canadian Armed Forces, Department of National Defence, and the Government of Canada. The action resulted in a record-breaking $145 million settlement and public apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The summit engaged participants in a multi-disciplinary examination of legal and non-legal remedies to enforce the rights of LGBTQ veterans and to honor and fully recognize their military service and unique sacrifices. The Honorable Halee Weinstein, and Paula M. Neira, JD, MSN, RN, CEN, gave powerful keynote luncheon addresses concerning discriminatory military policies against LGBTQ servicemembers, and the transgender service ban, respectively.

Weinstein, one of the few openly gay judges in the Maryland court system, was named Associate Judge, District Court of Maryland, District 1, Baltimore City, in 2002 and has been Judge-In- Charge of Eastside District Court since 2014. She served as a military intelligence officer in the Army from 1984 to 1986 until she was discharged because of her sexual orientation. Weinstein also created and is the current presiding Judge of the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court.  Neira was a surface warfare officer whose service included a tour of duty in mine warfare combat during Operation Desert Storm. After the Navy, she found a path toward nursing and law. She is the first transgender Navy veteran to have her DD-214 updated by order of the Navy to reflect her correct name. Additionally, she is the co-sponsor of the USNS HARVEY MILK. She is currently the Clinical Program Director at the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health.

The summit also dovetailed with Harvard Law School’s (HLS) bicentennial celebration and engaged alumni in the second day’s “hackathon” discussions of potential ways to address past and current discrimination against LGBTQ service members and veterans.

“It is genuinely exciting to witness so many individuals committed to advancing the rights of LGBT veterans. Symposia like the HLS Hackathon give me hope that there are still possibilities for positive change within our society,” said participant Hanna Tripp, who serves as a Military and Veteran Fellow in the Office of Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III.

Results from the summit’s working groups are currently being compiled into a more formal report which will be released in the next few weeks, but overall participants left the event feeling energized and hopeful, echoing Ms. Tripp’s comments.

“OUTVETS is honored to have been part of this amazing summit,” said Bryan Bishop, Commander of OUTVETS, a Boston-based LGBTQ Veterans Organization and the first ever LGBTQ organization to march in the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  “It never ceases to amaze me how, when we put our heads and hearts together, we can develop ideas that help the most vulnerable of our Veterans.  It is so important to remember that it is the one Veteran standing in front of us that is the most important.  This summit represents the beginning of an energized movement that works together to break down walls so no Veteran is left behind.”

Contact:
Anna Richardson, Veterans Legal Services
Anna@veteranslegalservices.org
Julie Rafferty, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School
jrafferty@law.harvard.edu

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

 

VA Secretary Shulkin Discusses Needs of Disabled Veterans During Visit to Harvard Law School & Veterans Legal Clinic

For the fourth year in a row, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School gathered together veterans, veterans service organizations, government officials. community providers, veterans advocates and lawyers, and law students for an event focused on the needs of disabled veterans. On Thursday, November 2, 2017, Dr. David Shulkin, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, delivered the 2017 DAV Distinguished Speaker Lecture at Harvard Law School. The event was co-hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic and Harvard Law School’s Armed Forced Association.

Alan Bowers, former National Commander of DAV, introducing VA Secretary Shulkin at HLS

Introductory remarks were given by former National Commander of DAV, Alan Bowers, a disabled combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Mr. Bowers described the community’s shared goal to care for veterans who are injured or ill as a result of their military service. “May the work of Harvard Law, the DAV, and the VA keep the promises that we make to the men and women who enlist in our armed forces of the United States of America, past and present. Keep the promise.”

Secretary Shulkin spoke about the challenges facing the VA, the VA’s efforts to serve the current needs of veterans, and his approach to leading the second largest federal agency.  Among other topics, he discussed veteran suicide, the needs of veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, innovations in the delivery of healthcare for veterans, and benefits appeal system reform. Speaking about the 2014 VA healthcare waitlist crisis, Shulkin said, “Our success is the trust of the veterans we serve and we clearly lost that trust.” Describing his approach when he took over as Secretary, he explained, “The only way I know how to go about regaining that trust is by being open and transparent about problems and as you’re fixing problems letting people know.”

VA Secretary Shulkin Speaking at HLS

Shulkin also described the VA’s comprehensive definition of health—the Whole Health System—which informs how VA seeks to provide holistic services, including peer support, transportation, homelessness services, and even connections to legal services. “What other health system thinks that it is important to have an involvement with the courts and to provide legal assistance? … Making sure that we can address the full well-being of a veteran is critical.”

(l-r) Anne Stark, HLS ’18, former Clinic student; Joshua Mathew, HLS ’19, current Clinic student and Armed Forces Association Co-President; and VA Secretary Shulkin meeting at the Legal Services Center.

After his lecture, Secretary Shulkin visited the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, located in Jamaica Plain.  Secretary Shulkin toured the Center and met with current and former Clinic students and staff to hear about the legal assistance they provide to low-income and disabled veterans and the most pressing legal issues faced by the veterans community.

Supported by a generous grant from the DAV Charitable Service Trust, the DAV Distinguished Lecture Series provides an annual forum at the world’s most renowned university and law school, public servants, and thought leaders to speak on issues of importance to the nation’s veterans. The series recognizes leading figures in the veterans’ community, raises awareness about the needs of veterans, sparks discussion about the public policies that most impact veterans, particularly those with service-connected disabilities, and serves as a call to action for veterans and non-veterans alike to help ensure the nation honors its commitments to those who have served.

For more coverage of Secretary Shulkin and his visit to HLS, please visit:

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/11/va-secretary-says-vets-health-top-priority/

https://today.law.harvard.edu/shulkin-seeks-increase-service-accountability-veterans-affairs/