What prompted you to create this nonprofit?
I was working for AmeriCorps, and I noticed there were a lot of homeless people wearing military garb—about three-quarters of the homeless people I saw. This puzzled me. I discovered that they had a suicide rate of 22 a day, which was really alarming. I really wanted to develop a military-specific nonprofit institution where we could show a debt of gratitude to those who were willing to leave their families and go overseas. So I started Veterans Legal Institute in 2014.
What services do you provide?
We now have close to 20 employees and 200 volunteers a year. We touch the lives of 1,000 veterans a year in Southern California. It’s an honor to use my law degree in such an impactful way, to lift up those who have come back with the invisible or visible wounds of war. We help them navigate the bureaucracy. We do a lot of complex veterans’ benefits appeals. We also provide assistance to people who are being evicted, and we work out agreements with landlords to keep them housed. We collaborate with social workers to prevent homelessness and provide estate planning services for older adults, among other legal services.
Can you give a few examples?
We had a veteran who was living in her car for years. She had been sexually assaulted in the military and had submitted a claim for PTSD, which was denied. As a result of her assault, she had disengaged from her unit and was subsequently separated from the military with a less-than-honorable discharge. So she had also requested a promotion of her discharge (to honorable), which was also denied. She kept appealing and was denied. This went on for years. She came to us because no one would touch her case. She received close to $400,000 in back pay after we won her case. The compensation is nice, but the validation of her sexual trauma and her subsequent discharge upgrade was even more important.
We had a recent win on another case involving a Vietnam veteran who entered the military through the McNamara project, a controversial program where they lowered military medical and mental standards in order to recruit more people. This client had a learning disability and was illiterate. He arrived in Vietnam and was kicked out after a few months for a personality disorder. When he returned home, he married a woman and they have been married for almost 50 years. She would read and write everything for him, and they were in love. They applied for a discharge upgrade and were denied. Our staff spent countless hours working with him. It took the VA a year and a half. Two weeks ago, we found out he won an honorable discharge. But he had passed two months ago. So he didn’t live to see it. However, his wife was very pleased. She photocopied the decision and sent it to the entire family. He had waited for this for close to 50 years.
Why is it important for you to do this work?
I feel very indebted to people who sign up to protect our freedoms, and as an American, I believe every able-bodied person should contribute, whether it’s serving in the military or volunteering their time. It’s my way of paying it forward and being a good citizen. It feels good to be doing my part. Abraham Lincoln said “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” Through that quote, the VA was born. But are we doing that? We’re trying, but we need to try harder. I find it very shameful when I see a veteran holding a sign on an off-ramp or when I hear about the suicide statistics. I want to dedicate my skill set to preventing veteran suicide and homelessness.
To read more stories from our Law issue, check these out:
Law and Order in O.C.: Six Nationally Known Cases
O.C. Judge David Carter Takes on National Cases
Criminal Justice Clinic at UC Irvine Law School Hits Stride