SierraMarie

Public Interest Paths: Legal Aid for Veterans

I’ve wanted for some time now to interview a lawyer who worked with veterans in a legal public service capacity. Strangely enough it was a rather difficult position to locate. There are a plethora of organizations and governmental bodies tasked with aiding veterans, but they all seemed to be staffed with social workers and nurses, rather than lawyers.

Interviewing Lauren Peach 

I found Lauren Peach on LinkedIn by doing a search of people who had worked in veteran legal aid, contacted her, and found a very enthusiastic woman who joined the legal profession specifically to aid the public. Lauren spent two years after her undergraduate education working with the Peace Corps in Namibia as a health and HIV/AIDS volunteer. When it was time for her to figure out what to do when she came home, she settled on gaining further tools to help people by attaining a law degree at the University of Washington School of Law.

Lauren sought out hands-on volunteering and internship opportunities in the local public service community in Seattle throughout her law school experience, working often with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), where she found her first job after graduation. She filled the newly created position of Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow, a one to two-year position for young lawyers.

I think if there is any advice I would give to public interest law students it’s that … in the public interest sector there aren’t a lot of resources and you kind of need to be connected to the community. The best way to do that is to work at those places, get to know the people and show that you are willing to do the work and figure it out. I think it was really clear to the Northwest Justice Project that I was willing to do that and really excited about working there.

The Veterans Project at the Northwest Justice Project

Her duties as an AmeriCorps fellow were to create a “Veterans Project” at the Northwest Justice Project from the ground up; working with other service providers to bring in clients, rearranging the NJP framework so that veteran-specific issues were funneled to her, aiding veteran clients in the community, and teaching others how to handle these issues. According to Lauren, NJP decided to create this position due to the increasing size of the veteran population paired with the existence of a complicated VA system that was not well-understood.

I think there have been a lot of calls that come through at the Northwest Justice Project through our “CLEAR” hotline that are veteran-specific issues. It’s one thing to know how to talk a client through how to deal with the VA, and it’s another thing to really understand all the benefits and services out there. Every year something like 20 services get added to the list and we just didn’t really have anyone at the organization [focusing on] “Hey, what’s the housing resource in Seattle for this veteran?” if they were trying to pay their utility bill. Or, “How do I connect them with mental health services at the VA?”

Lauren had a personal connection with this issue because she and her family had benefited from veteran programs her whole life.

My dad…was ROTC, he went to business school on the GI bill. My parents bought their first house with a VA home loan. I am a product of military service and benefits from the VA and I’m fully aware of that. We wouldn’t have had our middle class life if it weren’t for the fact that my dad served. It was wonderful to have this opportunity to set up this project dedicated to a community that’s rapidly growing and has a whole new set of issues facing them…The kids these days serving in the military have multiple deployments, a lot more time overseas, and it’s a volunteer army, not a draft, which makes the type of community look different. I was very excited about serving this community in particular, but also about starting a new project [at NJP]. 

Special Needs of Veteran Clients

The first question I had for Lauren regarding her job was how she thought the veteran client population differed from the general population. Veterans are the same as everyone else, right? How different could their needs be?

She had three main difference she had noticed: I think it’s a unique community because of their cultural experience with institutions, because of their mental health and disability issues that they see, and then there are certain legal issues that you are going to see in that population either uniquely or more often.

1.    Loss of a support system

Her point about institutionalization is one I agree with. People tend to think of the military as being difficult, but in some ways it is a very easy way to live. Housing is provided, there is a network of people responsible for your actions, health care is not a headache…it is a bit of a cocoon. When I first left the military as a young adult I lacked skills that other people gained earlier in life. I bought my first car from a little man with a gold tooth who I found on Craigslist. Not a good experience. I could easily see how some veterans could be more likely to experience difficulty accessing services and getting on with life after losing that military support system.

2.    Health issues

As for the mental and physical health problems, Lauren pointed out that just in general those issues tend to lead to legal entanglements due to causing a lack of ability to deal with small problems before they become larger ones, or a lack of ability to care about them.

There are lots of studies on this—there is clearly a mental health and substance abuse need. The numbers for those certain types of issues are much greater in the veteran population. Again, there is just a larger proportion of the veteran population that has all these barriers that end up turning into legal problems than there are in the general population. There are higher levels of PTSD and at the same time substance abuse, which makes lots of other things hard to deal with, so having some additional services there is really helpful.

3.    The Many-Headed Beast that is Veteran Affairs

The third issue Lauren identified as being unique to veterans was the navigation of the Department of Veteran Affairs bureaucracy, the second largest federal department in the nation (after Department of Defense).

For example, I had a law student who was fabulous and also served in the military, and you know, he’s a law student! He knows how to access information, had accessed the VA for services for himself. But he worked with me for almost two years, and during that time he would come to me weekly and say, “Lauren, I found out about this new service for veterans!”

The VA serves a great purpose, but can be overwhelming for clients to deal with when it comes to the legal issues created by situations such as accidental overpayments of benefits. Some are so confused by what they are and aren’t entitled to that they under-utilize programs.

Gender Divide in Those Seeking Services

I was curious to discover Lauren’s perception of how many female veterans are needing/accessing services. She acknowledged that the greater majority of clients she saw were male.

I am sure there are more women who need services than I got to see. I don’t think the model we set up was perfect. I think one thing that was challenging about the model we set up was that a lot of the referrals came from other service providers. If those service providers were serving primarily men—because for example they are housing service providers and they only have beds for men—then you can see how it can be a little bit self-selecting. I certainly had women clients but it was a much smaller number. Maybe ten percent? But I don’t really have a great sense as to whether that is reflective of the population in need, or whether that is reflective of the model we set up.

Another issue to consider is that most of the veterans accessing services are older veterans of previous wars, and there were perhaps fewer women in the service during those times than there are currently. Additionally, hardship situations such as homelessness statistically don’t happen to women as often as to men. Why? We aren’t sure. One theory Lauren had, which I agree with, is that it is possible women have more family support systems. It feels sexist to say that, but it also feels true; we live in a society that is still more likely to take care of women in need informally, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the streets.

Wrapping Up and Moving On

When it was time for Lauren to end her fellowship and move on, she left her successor with a foundation to build on. With the assistance of a law student, she put together a manual detailing how to deal with veteran legal issues in Washington State, titled Representing Washington Veterans: Basic Legal and Cultural Concepts

It wasn’t a requirement of my fellowship. I just saw the need and I like writing, and I thought, this is how I want to spend my extra time because I think it’s really important. I also had a committed law student from the University of Washington named Leo Flor who was willing to spend the time to put it together with me. I’m always of the mindset, why reinvent the wheel? Why are we going to do this again, over and over. I’m going to leave and the next person is going to have to answer all the same questions. Why don’t we just get it down on paper and the next person can make it better?

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The area of veteran legal aid is only going to grow as our current veteran population ages and needs to access services. It will be an interesting topic to keep an eye on in the next 5-10 years.

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