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Is Veteran Justice “For Sale?”

I am a small business owner. I make my living by trying to help members of the military and veterans. But let’s be honest: my services come at a cost to those whom I serve. For veterans who have left the service under less than fully honorable conditions, at least according to their DD Form 214, the harsh reality is that employment opportunities are lacking or even nonexistent. Often veterans report to me that their skills and knowledge award them jobs only to be let go a few short months later when a background check reveals an OTH discharge. Even when that OTH discharge was upgraded to a General under honorable conditions discharge.

Sometimes there are compelling reasons why that veteran should receive an Honorable discharge or even compelling reasons he should be returned to serve, having been denied even the basic processes due him in the administrative separation process. Receiving “notice” on the same day of their administrative hearing that the government intends to use “additional misconduct” as the either the basis for separation or for the characterization of their service is a common reported occurrence. Government apathy begets government apathy and years later for those that continue to fight the system, those veterans that have the financial means to hire experienced counsel may obtain relief. The system swallows many by the sheer number of processes and the figurative doors that keep slamming in their faces. The pro bono services available to veterans seem either to not exist or are seem to be so elusive as to effectively not exist. And in solo law firms like mine or in small firms, resources (including the time in the day and the ability to focus on clients that are facing court-martial conviction and / or sexual offender registration) permit only so many hours toward pro bono cases per year.

A few months back I received a phone call from a 92 year-old World War II combat-wounded veteran that had been notified that the State of Florida was denying him his food stamps. Not being licensed in Florida and therefore barred from taking up the matter myself, I told the veteran that I would set out to find him affordable or pro bono representation. After more than two weeks of efforts, I finally found a pro bono veterans legal organization that he qualified for and that agreed to put him together with the attorney. I was elated…until the next day when the veteran informed me that the attorney reported to him that he could not take on the representation because the position of the state was one he believed to be accurate and that there was nothing he could do on his behalf. I have no idea if the attorney’s interpretation of the law was accurate or not, but I certainly questioned in my own mind if the same attorney that had been hired by this veteran and paid a hefty retainer at a generous billable hourly rate would he have at least come up with a creative argument about why his client merited to continue his food stamps? Would he have at least tried?

Is Veteran “Justice” For Sale? Maybe that veteran’s case was hopeless. Often the military accused’s case looks hopeless at first blush, but that doesn’t make it so. Nor does it mean that he deserves any less effort to try to see a way out of that seemingly dark hole.

In trying to find the answer to this problem of veterans in need of affordable or pro bono quality services to help them try to upgrade their discharges, I turned to Google.  A Google search does reveal a few apparent resources, including the San Francisco Bay-area based “Swords to Plow-Shares” organization that provides pro bono assistance in applications to upgrades of discharges for California veterans. Note of Disclaimer: this blog and its author in no way are endorsing the organization because I have no personal experience with them.

The author would caution anyone when signing up for resources because each of them also attempt to attract “free” help on applying to the Department for Veterans Affairs for benefits. Understand that most attorneys that practice in this field perform the work up-front at no cost but are paid on a contingency basis from a percentage of any amount previously denied the veteran, and some collect as much as 30% of those funds. Attorneys are prevented from collecting any percentage of future benefits that become owed the veteran. Understand that this author is not besmirching legal work that is done by performance based fees, simply that when seeking out truly pro bono legal work, not every organization may be as upfront about that fee arrangement as others.

I am not sure if these resources are the cure to the ills of those veterans in need of affordable or no-cost legal assistance in upgrades to discharges; I just know that there seems to be no end in sight to the phone calls I receive from veterans who are living in their cars because their unemployment benefits ran out, but they cannot become employable without what amounts to thousands of dollars in legal fees, legal fees that they cannot possibly afford. Efforts by the American Bar Association’s Military Pro Bono Project are making strides to connect current military members and their families with volunteer attorneys in their geographical areas, but they do not assist past members in preparing applications for upgrades.