Mobile Law Office Goes on the Road to Help Nation's Vets
A number of veterans that we have seen suffer from PTSD. It is now estimated that over 300,000 returning veterans may suffer from this condition. One veteran we spoke with has had many difficulties in his life related to his condition. He has nightmares and horrific memories. Nevertheless, he had been denied any disability because it is determined that his condition actually began when he was driving bus and the stress that comes with driving his bus. On balance the concept that someone is more stressed from driving bus (even in rush hour traffic) rather than being stressed from being in combat, seeing a close friend shoot off his own head and experiencing other graphic occurrences, is clearly in error.
The idea had long since passed the planning stage. Now, in early February, an idea hatched by the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and developed over the past year at locations throughout Michigan was about to go national. Six days and some 1,500 miles after leaving Detroit, UDM Law students and faculty were in the new Veterans Mobile Law Office (MLO) in San Antonio, Texas, preparing to open the doors to a unique, ground-breaking initiative aptly named Project SALUTE (Students And Lawyers assisting U.S. Troops Everywhere). Project SALUTE, which is part of the school's Veterans Law Clinical Program, was on location offering free assistance and representation on federal veterans benefits issues to low-income military veterans. What's more, UDM Law was also providing training to local attorneys who were willing to donate their time to assist veterans with these issues on a pro-bono basis.
Another veteran had direct exposure to Sarin gas (C-56 basis), while he was in the military. He has since suffered from some significant but unclear neurological conditions. His exposure to Sarin gas however was deemed to have been "low level" and thus not causing him a disability. Because of the neurological conditions, he was initially thought to be suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. He might have qualified for disability benefits based on that diagnosis. However, he was subsequently diagnosed to be suffering from Parkinson's disease and as such he was denied any benefits.
No other law school in the country has even a single Mobile Law Office at its disposal to meet with clients in different areas. UDM School of Law now has two. The original Mobile Law Office continues to travel around Michigan assisting a diverse range of clients including veterans, senior citizens, those in need of immigration assistance, and others. But thanks to a generous donation by General Motors, UDM's second Mobile Law Office, the Veterans MLO, is now traveling around the nation on the national veterans tour. Thanks to further sponsorship from Post-Newsweek Stations, Project SALUTE was assured of advance publicity in cities such as San Antonio, Houston, Miami, Jacksonville, Fla., and other stops during this first phase of the national tour. Still, UDM Law was not sure what the response was going to be in Texas, Florida, and other states where the Veterans MLO was scheduled to set up shop. They knew from national data that many veterans across the country desperately need their services. But from past experiences in Michigan, they also knew veterans were not likely to register in advance to meet with the faculty and students. And likewise, attorneys often could not make certain time commitments because of their own schedule conflicts. Would anyone show up? They need not have worried.
Filling a critical need
In San Antonio, a city rich in U.S. military history - after all, San Antonio is home to the Alamo - over 225 veterans and attorneys jammed the Project SALUTE Veterans MLO in their desire to meet with UDM faculty and students. "We anticipated maybe 50 people would show up," said Professor Tammy Kudialis, who also is serving as director of UDM's National Veterans Tour. "We never expected a few hundred. It exceeded everyone's expectations. It highlighted the veterans' needs. But it also showed a lot of attorneys how many people needed their help." Strong turnouts continued when Project SALUTE moved to Houston, and then to several more cities in Florida and Georgia. When Project SALUTE hung its shingle in Jacksonville, for example, emergency volunteer professors and students were flown in overnight from Detroit to handle all of the requests for help. "We had to send two additional faculty members and two more students to Jacksonville on the fly because more than 200 veterans showed up on the first day of the meetings," said Alesa Silver, who coordinates the events in each city from her office at UDM. "We already had one faculty member and three students down there with Tammy. But it was obvious that more help was needed."
In Florida, a married couple came to meet with Project SALUTE. The husband is a veteran and recently had a number of heart attacks and a stroke. He soon will lose his livelihood, putting both he and his wife in dire financial circumstances. He filed a disability claim with the VA within the last six months but has not heard from them yet. He needs the VA to make a decision on his claim quickly, but they do not have a viable procedure for doing so for him. Unlike the Social Security disability system there is not a "dire needs" system for fast-tracking a claim that needs immediate attention. This veteran needs fast-tracking because of his dire financial circumstances and poor health. The lack of a quick decision could in this case cause even more significant health consequences for the veteran in light of his recent cardiac problems. Sometimes a review of these cases requires a human approach, as well as an approach by the book. This was one of those situations.
By the time the first phase of the national veterans tour ended in April in Miami/Fort Lauderdale, faculty and students had met with more than 1,000 veterans seeking legal help and had trained more than 100 local attorneys interested in helping their cause.
"This tour has highlighted the serious problem that's out there," said Professor Michael Bryce, Director of Clinical Programs at UDM Law. "It's estimated that about one-third of all veterans don't have anyone helping them with their benefits process, and that at least a half-million veterans either don't understand the benefits they're entitled to, or haven't filed to receive them. We've been amazed by the number of people on the national tour whom we've seen who haven't even filed for benefits. These people need our help."
Answering a call for help is why UDM Law established its Veterans Clinic in early 2007.
"We believe in giving our students hands-on experience in dealing with real clients. We also believe in challenging them to serve those in need," said UDM Law Dean Mark Gordon, explaining the reasons for starting a Veterans Law Clinic. "Rather than sitting back and watching the problems that veterans have, we decided to actually try to do something about it. Working together, our students and faculty have created something special. I would be dishonest if I did not tell you how overwhelmed we have been by the response."
Gordon credits the work of professors such as Bryce, Kudialis, Peggy Costello and Joon Sung as well as Law alumnus Dick Jefferson for driving the program's success. Professors Peggy Costello and Joon Sung have in a very short time created a vibrant Veterans Law Clinic, expanded its efforts throughout Michigan, and now taken it national. "What they have accomplished is incredible," said Dean Gordon. Gordon added, "Law alum Dick Jefferson, '91, formerly executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, has been a key player in this project, both conceptually, strategically, and in reaching out to the media. We could not have been successful without him. The time, energy and commitment of Professor Michael Bryce and Professor Tammy Kudialis have been incredible, and more recently Alesa Silver has added her logistical abilities to the team."
Starting in Michigan
The Mobile Law Office has been a part of the UDM Law program since 2004. The first Mobile Law Office was purchased with a gift from law alumnus Joseph J. Conklin, '51. Initially, it was designed to help the elderly or those seeking guidance with immigration issues, but it also offered free legal services on a variety of issues. In 2007 alone, the original Mobile Law Office provided help to state residents at approximately 100 different stops in Michigan. With the addition of the Veterans Law Clinic, the Mobile Law Office began visiting sites with access to low-income veterans in the metropolitan Detroit area.
In 2007, a $200,000 legislative grant (spearheaded by the efforts of alumni Representative Andy Meisner, '06, Kirk Profit, '79, and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, '67) through the State of Michigan's Department of Human Services helped jump-start the Mobile Law Office's efforts to reach veterans across the state. State leaders across party lines joined together to provide financial support for the program, because they understood many veterans in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Traverse City and all around the state needed help in their efforts to gain or increase their disability benefits. They also realized that additional benefits for veterans also provided rewards to the state; that is, greater federal disability payments to state veterans would bring added federal dollars to the state, increasing Michigan's revenues and economic activity.
The Mobile Law Office continues to help the state's veterans in Michigan. However, after seeing the need for such a service in just one state, taking the new Veterans MLO around the country was the natural next step in the process, a step made possible by General Motors North America Vice President & General Counsel E. Christopher Johnson, Jr. who spearheaded GM's donation of the Veterans MLO. This donation actually came in two parts: a rental RV allowed UDM to get started on the national tour while the permanent Veterans MLO was on the assembly line.
Finished in April, this Veterans MLO is a 2008 Winnebago Outlook 31C which is disabled-accessible, specially outfitted, and custom-designed for the use of UDM's National Veterans Tour.
"It really is an office," Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Cara Cunningham said about the new digs. "It was an extraordinarily generous gift from GM."
A veteran was stationed in Korea from 1977 to 1978. He was a heavy machine operator there, including volunteering to dump Agent Orange into a pit, with his machinery. Because he volunteered, he ended up being assigned to discard the Agent Orange for nearly a year. He was exposed to the Agent Orange on a regular basis throughout that entire time. He has since developed a number of health conditions that he argues emanated from his work in Korea. These conditions include a constant severe skin rash, a chronic cough, Type II diabetes and an enlarged liver. On one side, he has a football sized object beneath the skin that is starkly abnormal. Because the Agent Orange work was not done in Vietnam during the specified time, it is not regarded as presumptive for his conditions. Yet, he has been exposed to Agent Orange many more times than almost anyone who went to Vietnam.
Getting the word out
The new vehicle will help faculty and students with the Veterans MLO by easing the monumental effort needed to properly implement a Project SALUTE program. Each event is an experience all its own, requiring a great deal of advance effort, as well as a tremendous commitment from faculty, administrators and students.
"Nobody's ever done anything like this, so we have had to feel our way through a lot of this," Silver said. "But everyone has done a super job. I feel honored just to be part of this project."
Planning the first phase of the nationwide tour took several months. States and cities with large veteran populations were a high priority for the initial Project SALUTE visits. Once specific sites were identified - usually an American Legion post or some other military-related or legal-aid facility - veterans and attorneys in the chosen communities needed to be notified of the upcoming event.
"We've done a lot of outreach," Kudialis said. "We've tried to put the word out through local veterans organizations through e-mailing and sending flyers. Veterans organizations are all run differently, at the local and state levels, which proved difficult at times. But we tried to reach out to everybody we could think of."
At the same time, Project SALUTE appealed to local attorneys in each tour city who would be interested in coming to the Veterans MLO to receive training on veterans federal benefits issues and to donate their time to assist low income veterans on a pro-bono basis. So in much the same way they searched for veterans in need, the advance team connected with interested lawyers by contacting law offices big and small, individual attorneys and local legal professional groups.
One of the biggest reasons behind a successful turnout proved to be advance media publicity. The sponsorship with Post-Newsweek was instrumental in providing coverage. Community newspapers and other local TV and radio stations also were quick to pick up on local interest in the story.
"We do have advance registration, but we haven't seen a lot of veterans or attorneys register in advance," Kudialis said. "We've had more people walk in because they've heard about us through newspaper articles or on local TV shows."
A veteran in Florida was visibly distraught. He had served in Vietnam. He assisted in building landing areas during the Tet Offensive. This made his a sitting duck during mortar and other bombings. He has since developed PTSD that totally incapacitates him from functioning in modern society. More than one VA doctor has diagnosed him with having PTSD. Nonetheless, he has been denied benefits. The rationale for denial is that he had no stressor from combat. He initially was also told that his service records had been lost, preventing him from arguing he had been in combat. Fortuntely, that did not stop him, as he went to the National Archives and tracked down his own service records. These records show that he had been in combat. So, now he has proven that he was in combat and the PTSD is service related. Nevertheless, he has continued to be denied disability benefits.
How it works
After arriving in a city, Project SALUTE usually operates on a three-day schedule. The first day begins with a presentation to veterans, in which faculty and students spell out the benefits that may be available to them. Following the presentation, students and faculty begin individual interviews with veterans to discuss their specific cases. At the end of the day, meetings are held among the faculty and students to discuss each case and find the best ways to help veterans with their benefits claims.
Day two is completely devoted to further individual interviews with veterans. Once again, faculty, students and local volunteers meet with veterans to hear about their individual stories and needs. Of course, the students all work under the supervision of the faculty, and all UDM participants focus only on issues related to veterans federal benefits.
The work is immense. "Our professors and students work literally day and night when they're with the Mobile Law Office," Silver said.
The final day of each major national tour stop focuses on training for pro-bono lawyers and service officers. This includes teaching the basics of federal disability benefits, as well as distributing some of the cases to local attorneys willing to assist on a pro-bono basis.
In addition to their work at Project SALUTE, during the tour faculty and students may also visit local universities, or meet with community organizations and members of the media to help spread the word about the program. As a result, they frequently connect with people who want to help.
"There are so many people who want to get involved but don't know how," Cunningham said. "And there are so many veterans who want and need help, but don't know where to go. Now, we're putting these people together, and you can already see the ripple effects. You can see what's happening in Texas. Long after we've gone, the local attorneys are continuing to work with local veterans' organizations. And groups such as the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, which was such a spectacular partner with us in Houston, are now leading the effort in their area.
"This is creating so much goodwill. The veterans are so grateful knowing that somebody cares, that somebody is out there fighting for them."
A veteran in Texas has been essentially doing his own case. He received some assistance from a service officer with filing his papers, but not much help substantively. The veteran has appealed at least 3 times and has been up to the Board of Veterans Appeals. In each instance his appeal was remanded to the level below to be considered again. And each time he was denied again. What is happening to this veteran is somewhat like a "yo-yo" effect. He is up and down with no final decision. Meanwhile, being in limbo on his claim, he continues not to receive benefits. This has been going on for a long time and he now is getting on in years. If he dies before he receives any benefits, his claim will die with him, even though he may be entitled to thousands of dollars in a retroactive award. This situation is very similar to one we learned of recently where a veteran had fought his appeal for over five years and had eventually won. One week before his first check from VA was set to arrive, he died.
At every stop along the way, overwhelming media attention has been given to the work taking place on the Veterans MLO. The San Antonio Express-News, for example, highlighted the story of an Army retiree, West Point grad and Desert Storm veteran who had lost his home, family and job because of what he believed was Gulf War Syndrome, yet received only a 20-percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs for hypertension and a shoulder injury.
Likewise, the Houston Chronicle reported on a veteran who had lost a leg to diabetes, which was linked to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Originally denied disability benefits, right after being the subject of press coverage related to his meeting with Project SALUTE, he received word from the VA that he would receive $96,000 in retroactive benefits.
Many stories have been written or broadcast about veterans who were seeking help in their struggles. But newspaper and TV reports also focused on the faculty and students who have come from UDM School of Law in Detroit to help these local veterans with their problems.
Second-year law student Katherine Carr described her experiences to the Tampa Tribune. Similarly, in an interview with Florida Today during the Veterans MLO stop at the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center, UDM Law student Andrew Calcutt described how rewarding the work was for students. "It's a daunting task," Calcutt said. "But it feels good to get out and help people in need." Numerous other students have appeared on TV, including Brad Erickson (3L), Elizabeth Holmes (3L), Tony Karman (3L), and Matthew Smith (3L).
While Project SALUTE and the Veterans Mobile Law Office may shine a national spotlight on UDM School of Law, publicity is not the reason for the existence of such worthwhile programs.
"UDM is being recognized around the country, and we're being recognized as a clinic leader in terms of our Mobile Law Office and our work with the veterans," Professor Michael Bryce said. "But the fact that we're out there getting recognition for UDM School of Law is a corollary. Our main purpose is to train our students, highlight this problem, and work with veterans to get them the help they need. And it also allows our students to understand the great responsibility they have to do pro-bono work in the legal field."
A female veteran had been shot in the leg while in service. During the operation to remove the bullet from her leg, it was determined by the doctors it had to be left in there. Subsequently, the veteran had an accident with a tank door further damaging the same leg. This required surgery which resulted in her injured leg being shorter than her other one. After getting out of the military she has continued to have difficulty with her leg and its mobility, including significant pain. When she applied for disability, she was denied. It is hard to believe that the VA could determine her leg injury to not be combat related.
Rewards are great
The Veterans MLO is a perfect extension of the work of the Jesuit priests who founded the University of Detroit in 1877 and of the Sisters of Mercy who founded Mercy College, which merged with the University of Detroit in 1990. The Jesuits and Sisters of Mercy are known for going out into the world to help people, and their mission continues through the school's many volunteer activities, including the Project SALUTE program.
"Why are we doing this?" Dean Gordon was asked. "Because it is great training for our students, and because it is a great service for those who have already served. We have heard from veterans from all eras and all wars, veterans with all kinds of disabilities and all kinds of stories. But what we have heard the most is the extent of the need and the level of gratitude that the veterans we help express. The truth is that it is really we who should be offering gratitude to them."
As shown in the early days of the Mobile Law Office, UDM School of Law is making a difference with its new Veterans Mobile Law Office and Project SALUTE program. In doing so, students are reaping untold benefits from the hands-on experience they are receiving in dealing with these real-life issues. But the students, faculty and administrators will likely tell you they are getting far more out of this project than anything they could put in.
"Law school is about learning, but it is also about learning to do good," Dean Gordon said. "We want our students here at UDM School of Law to realize that as attorneys, you truly can make a difference in other people's lives. And there is no population more deserving than our nation's veterans. They have already answered the call. We at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law are now answering the call."
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law National Veterans Tour
Monday February 11, 2008 - Dean Gordon
Last week at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law we made a pretty unusual announcement. At a press conference hosted by Rhonda Walker of WDIV-TV Channel 4, we announced the launch of a national tour of our Mobile Law Office and Veterans Clinic to assist veterans around the nation with accessing federal veterans benefits.
I was very moved to share the podium with representatives of veterans organizations and to be speaking to a group of veterans who have served our country and now need our help -- as attorneys, law students, and as a law school – to serve them.
I think the best way to describe what we're doing is for me to share with you excerpts from my remarks at last week's press conference:
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law is very proud to announce the launch of our Project SALUTE – students and lawyers assisting US troops everywhere exclusively with federal benefits issues. Project SALUTE will build on the success that we’ve had in Michigan in assisting veterans and take that assistance to veterans across the country to help them exclusively with securing their federal veterans benefits.
At University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, we believe in giving our students hands-on experience in dealing with real clients. We also believe in challenging them to serve those in need.
That’s why we established our UDM Veterans Clinic in the first place. Less than a year ago, we decided that rather than sitting back and watching the problems that veterans have, we would actually try to do something about it.
And, working together, our students and our faculty, led by Professor Michael Bryce, Professor Peggy Costello, Professor Joon Sung, and Professor Tammy Kudialis – we’ve created something special. A way for low-income veterans to get the assistance that they need to receive their federal veterans benefits.
The State of Michigan saw the good that we were doing, and they have given us now a grant of $200,000 so that we can take our innovative Mobile Law Office to travel the State reaching out to veterans. And we have. So far, we have served over 600 veterans here in Michigan, in Grand Rapids and Flint, Battle Creek and Lansing, Traverse City and beyond, with many more stops to come.
And I would not be honest if I did not tell you how overwhelmed we have been by the response. Attorneys at major firms and smaller firms, corporate counsels and sole practitioners, have stepped forward. Veterans service organizations have offered us their cooperation and help. In city after city, dozens of veterans have come to take us up on our offer of assistance.
We first announced our Michigan effort on a Saturday – and the first call for assistance from a veteran logged in at 6:12 am that Saturday morning. Within two weeks, we had heard from over 300 veterans. We heard from veterans from all eras and all wars; veterans with all kinds of disabilities and all kinds of stories. But what we have heard the most is the extent of the need and the level of gratitude that the veterans we help express.
Now, the truth is that it is really we who should be offering our gratitude to them. And that’s why we started thinking long and hard about how to expand our efforts. Chris Johnson at General Motors stepped forward to achieve the impossible – getting GM to donate a new custom-designed, state of the art second Mobile Law Office that will enable us to supplement our efforts in Michigan with efforts beyond. So while our Michigan tour continues and indeed expands, today we announce a new phase – a national tour to assist veterans.
Why are we doing this? Because it is great training for our students. And because it is a great service for those who have already served.
What will we be doing? In city after city across this country, UDM School of Law and the faculty and students in our Veterans Clinic will be doing five things:
- Providing educational outreach for veterans, so that they can learn about their rights to federal veterans benefits.
- Doing intake so that individual low-income veterans can tell their own stories, and so that they can have their cases handled – either by our Veterans Clinic or by local attorneys willing to volunteer pro bono.
- In order to increase the number of those attorneys available, we will be providing in many cities training sessions – for free – for any attorney willing to learn about how to handle veterans benefits cases and willing to provide assistance to veterans pro bono.
- In doing all these things – the education, the training, and the individual cases – we will also be drawing public attention to this critical issue.
- And fifth, we will be challenging attorneys around the nation to answer the call, by providing countless hours of free assistance to our nation’s veterans.
Law school is about learning, but it is also about learning to do. We want our students here at UDM School of Law to realize that as attorneys, you truly can make a difference in other people’s lives.
And there is no population more deserving than our nation’s veterans. No matter when they served, whether on the frontlines or behind the lines, they have performed a service to all of us. They have already answered the call; we at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law are now answering the call; and together we are issuing a call to others to join with us to serve those who have already served us all.