Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Utah Legal Assistance to Military Personnel (LAMP)

Utah Legal Services offers a great many clinics for the general public, which may be helpful to military families. Please see http://www.andjusticeforall.org for a legal resource guide, a list of legal clinics for the entire state, information on how to qualify for clinics, and so forth.

Attorneys interested in providing pro bono help to active duty military personnel should contact the Utah State Bar Pro Bono Coordinator by emailing Probono@utahbar.org or writing 645 S. 200 East, Suite 310, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.

The Utah Online Court Assistance Program (OCAP) is the official State of Utah website for assistance in preparing court documents if you are not able to have an attorney draft them for you: http://www.utcourts.gov/ocap/

Some military bases offer Non-Mission Related Legal Assistance to certain categories of beneficiaries as resources permit; one example is Hill AFB Legal Assistance Division; please see its FAQ for information on who they can and cannot assist, and the type of matter they can or cannot assist with.

Active duty service members can also consult the Armed Forces Legal Assistance's nice online database to "locate active duty legal activities offering general legal services within the continental United States". A query for the state of Utah is here

There is a Utah State Bar Military Law Section:
"The purpose of the Military Law Section is to seek the participation of interested Bar members as well as other state and local bar associations in providing a forum for the interchange and dissemination of ideas in the area of Military Law, to facilitate the initiation and implementation of common projects, to increase camaraderie, to provide opportunities for networking, to monitor important legal issues, and to undertake other such services as may benefit its members, the legal profession, and the public. "
For more information on the section, see http://www.utahbar.org/sections/military/Welcome.html

You may also be interested in this blog, focused on Utah Veterans: Utah State VA Blog

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Chemical-Biological Warfare Exposures Site

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has set up a Web site to provide Service members, veterans, their families and the public with information on what happened during chemical and biological (CB) testing conducted years ago that potentially affected the health of those who served.

It is also implicitly asking veterans to report what they know about exposure during service:
"The VA intends to notify individuals of their potential exposure, provide treatment, if necessary, for these individuals and adjudicate any claim for compensation.

DoD plans to complete its active investigation of potential exposures by 2011. By that time, DoD will have visited all known locations believed to contain exposure data. However, it will energetically follow up on any information provided by veterans or other sources that may lead to the identification of additional potentially exposed veterans."
If you need help verifying your possible participation in any of the tests or have information about the testing, you can fill out a form by clicking on the "Contact" link at http://fhp.osd.mil/CBexposures (near the bottom, right side) or call the Department of Defense's (DoD) contact managers at (800) 497-6261, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Welshans v. USPS: a Limit on USERRA Application

Victor W. Welshans is an Army reservist and employee of the United States Postal Service, which grants its employees 15 days per fiscal year of military leave. In 1999, his period of military leave was charged for two days for which he was not scheduled to work.

Welshans appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), claiming he should not have been charged military leave for days (e.g. Sundays and holidays) which were not his scheduled workdays; MSPB dismissed in Welshans vs. USPS (2007 MSPB 249). He sought corrective action under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA); the Federal Circuit recently affirmed in Welshans vs. United States Postal Service (Fed Cir 12/15/2008).

The court concluded that the federal employer's policy charging employees for non-work days falling within a period of military leave was consistent with the employer's Employee and Labor Relations Manual (ELM) in effect during the relevant time period, did not run afoul of Butterbaugh v. Department of Justice, 336 F3d 1332 (Fed Cir 2003), and did not violate USERRA.

With respect to the USERRA claim, the court wrote:
"Finally, Welshans contends that charging military leave for non-workdays is, on its face, a violation of USERRA. “USERRA represents Congress’s most recent effort to create a comprehensive statutory scheme to provide civilian reemployment rights for those who serve in the armed forces in order ‘to encourage noncareer service in the uniformed services by eliminating or minimizing the disadvantages to civilian careers and employment which can result from such service.’” Smith v. U.S. Postal Serv., 540 F.3d 1364, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (quoting 38 U.S.C. § 4301(a)). It prohibits discrimination against persons serving in the military by mandating that a member of “a uniformed service shall not be denied . . . any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership . . . .” 38 U.S.C. § 4311(a); see Hernandez, 498 F.3d at 1332 n.4.

Under USERRA, the board has jurisdiction over a government employee’s claim that he has been denied a “benefit of employment” on the basis of his membership in the uniformed services. See 38 U.S.C. §§ 4311(a), 4324(b). The term “benefit of employment” has been given an “expansive interpretation,” see Yates v. Merit Sys. Prot. Bd., 145 F.3d 1480, 1484-85 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and has been construed to include military leave, Pucilowski v. Dep’t of Justice, 498 F.3d 1341, 1344 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

Contrary to Welshans’ assertions, however, the Postal Service’s military leave policy did not deny reservists any benefit of employment. Instead, the ELM in effect in 1999 granted reservists an additional benefit not available to non-military employees. While non-reservists were entitled to sick and annual leave, reservists were granted not only sick and annual leave, but military leave as well. Regardless of whether non-workdays are charged against military leave, such leave is a benefit available only to employees serving in the military. USERRA prohibits discrimination against reservists because of their service: there is nothing in the statute to prevent an agency from granting them benefits not available to other employees. See Fahrenbacher v. Dep’t of Navy, 85 M.S.P.R. 500, 510 (M.S.P.B. 2000), aff’d sub nom. Sheehan v. Dep’t of Navy, 240 F.3d 1009 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (“To establish [USERRA] discrimination, [veterans] must show that they were treated more harshly than non-veterans. The fact that they were not treated better than non-veterans does not show discrimination.”)."

Kudos to the Washington State Bar Association's Labor Law Section who published on this case in its lawMemo Labor Law Blog. This may be a resource for future discussion of employment rights of veterans.

Virginia Legal Assistance to Military Personnel

For the Warrior Community
Active duty service members can go to Armed Forces Legal Assistance's online database to locate active duty legal activities offering general legal services within the continental United States. When you put in your state or ZIP code, and it looks up about a dozen of these offices in Virginia.

The Findlaw website has a city-by-city list of lawyers interested in representing active-duty military personnel, military reservists, and veterans here.

Virginia has two statewide bar associations that should not be confused:
  • The Virginia State Bar (VSB) is an arm of the court system, and focuses on regulating the practice of law
  • the Virginia Bar Association (VBA) is a voluntary association of lawyers.
  • The Virginia State Bar's Military Law Section hosts Law Related Resources for Veterans webpage. Among other things, it mentions that Active Duty & Retired Military Personnel are eligible for pro bono assistance or a reduced fee through the VSB Lawyer Referral/ Pro bono Project: call 1 800 552-7977
More resources to check out:
  • Virginia Department of Veterans Services The department operates more than twenty field offices to provide information, assistance, and advocacy for military veterans who live in Virginia. Areas the department can help with include pensions and benefits, homelessness, spousal conflict resolution, education, and home loans. Services are described at http://www.dvs.virginia.gov/veterans-benefits.shtml. Veterans can walk into the field offices and receive same-day service, or they can make an appointment. To find the field office nearest you, click on the map or call (804) 786-0294.
  • Virginia Committee for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve:The volunteer lawyers and nonlawyers who make up this group serve as neutral ombudsmen in employment disputes governed by the Uniform Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Ombudsmen intervene in disputes in response to reservists who return from duty to find that their employer won’t take them back or restore them to an equivalent job. And they intervene at the request of an employer who feels the reservist did not meet his or her responsibilities to qualify for reemployment under USERRA. Much of the work is by telephone. Ombudsmen also provide training to inform employers of their rights and responsibilities under USERRA. In 93 percent of cases referred to the committee, the dispute is resolved with the help of the ombudsman - no need for anyone to sue! Learn more at http://www.esgr.mil/Contact/Local-State-Pages/Virginia.aspx  To be put in touch with an ombudsman, call (800) 336-4590. 
  • Clinic for Legal Assistance to Service Members (CLASM):CLASM is a George Mason University program through which attorney-supervised law students help active-duty service members with a range of civil issues— contracts, landlord-tenant, uncontested divorces, and administrative matters, for example. Clients are persons who would suffer undue financial hardship if they were to hire a lawyer. Cases are selected that are manageable by students. Learn more at http://clas.law.gmu.edu/ To refer a client, contact (703) 993-8214. To volunteer or ask questions, contact Joseph C. Zengerle, executive director of CLASM, at jzengerl@gmu.edu.
  • Community Mediation Centers:Virginia's court system coordinates an extensive program of mediators. For more information, see http://www.courts.state.va.us/courtadmin/aoc/djs/programs/drs/mediation/cmcl.html.
  • Virginia Lawyer Referral Service:
    The Virginia State Bar operates this service to match people with lawyers in their communities. Some lawyers have indicated an interest in assisting with issues that affect military members or veterans. For a small fee, the lawyer will provide a half-hour consultation. See www.vsb.org/site/public/lawyer-referral-service. Persons seeking a lawyer may call (800) 552-7977.
  • Dawn Chase's article for VSB's Virginia Lawyer Magazine is a good resource, although now a little dated (download here - PDF).

For Lawyers

See also

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Developing Permanent Supportive Housing for Homeless Veterans

"The Veterans Administration 2007 CHALENG Report estimates that nearly 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and more than half a million experience homelessness over the course of a year. ...

There is an entire continuum of housing options available depending on the needs of the clients. Short term housing options such as emergency shelter or transitional housing may be very appropriate for what they were intended to serve, short term emergency housing needs. However for those with the most complex set of service needs and significant challenges in establishing housing stability, permanent supportive housing may be the most appropriate housing intervention. Supportive housing works well for individuals and families who are not only homeless, but who also have very low incomes and serious, persistent issues that may include substance use, mental illness, and HIV/AIDS. ..."
Thus begins the Guidebook for Developing Permanent Supportive Housing for Homeless Veterans, a joint effort of our federal government and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

This 94-page guide aims to help community-based homeless veteran service providers explore the various supportive housing development options available for homeless veterans:
"Readers will be given the tools needed to initiate the
development process, identify available capital, operating and services funding for supportive housing, and assess their organization’s capacity to develop and/or operate supportive housing."
Lawyers experienced in steering business projects to success, but frustrated at finding appropriate pro bono opportunities, should consider assisting projects that develop solutions for homelessness among veterans; this guide may be a good introduction. Read it at http://www.nchv.org/docs/CSHVeteransDevelopmentGuidebook2008FINAL.pdf


Regional Trainings

From another press release:
"Since 2004, The Corporation for Supportive Housing has subcontracted with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) to provide targeted technical assistance around the topic of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans to its member base of homeless service providers. Based on recent events including the allocation of 10,000 HUD-VASH vouchers in 2008 there is an increased momentum around the development and operation of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans.

To assist in building the capacity of homeless veteran housing and service providers, CSH will be providing 2-day trainings on a regional basis. The first day will consist of a basic overview of how to develop process in permanent supportive housing, moving from providing transitional to permanent housing, property management and service coordination. The second day will consist of a morning session dedicated to the overview of supportive housing budgets and an afternoon session focused on operating budgets and effective service strategies in supportive housing.

The dates and locations for the trainings are as follows:
  • Western Region
  • Eastern Region – Newark , NJ – February 18-19, 2009
  • Central Region – Chicago , IL – March 10-11, 2009

Registration: FREE

How to Register: To apply for the Los Angeles training click here

For all questions regarding these trainings, please contact Melanie Lilliston with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans at nchv5@nchv.org or by phone at 202-546-1969."

Monday, December 22, 2008

VA Urges Vets to Sign-up for Direct Deposits

Stuck in my apartment due to exceptional snow and ice, I was struck by the utility of a campaign to encourage the direct deposit of veterans' benefit checks. A few minutes of effort can save a lot of trouble, especially when the weather is uncooperative.

Here's the press release:
"VA Urges Vets to Sign-up for Direct Deposits
WASHINGTON (December 15, 2008) -- Every month, 730,000 veterans or
survivors look for their compensation, pension checks or educational
assistance payments in their mailboxes. Nearly all receive them, but
theft and mail delays cause problems for some veterans, which can be
prevented by direct deposits.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is urging those veterans and
family members now receiving paper checks to join nearly 3.1 million
others whose VA payments are safely deposited electronically.

"VA is teaming up with the Treasury Department in a new campaign to
protect government beneficiaries against the theft of funds and of their
identities," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake.
"Veterans earned -- and rely on -- the financial support we send them
every month. I urge them to help VA ensure they get those funds
reliably and safely by signing up for direct deposit."

Peake cited several easy ways to sign up for direct deposit -- calling
VA toll-free at (800) 333-1795 or enrolling online at www.GoDirect.org.
Veterans, and family members who receive VA payments, also can sign up
by contacting a VA regional benefits office or their financial
institution. Information about direct deposits will be included in VA's
monthly compensation and pension envelopes throughout 2009.

The VA Secretary urged veterans to remember that direct deposits relieve
worry about mail delivery being delayed by severe weather or natural
disasters. The deposits also eliminate trips to banks or credit unions
to deposit checks, while providing immediate access to money at the same
time each month."

MORE VA PRESS RELEASES: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel

Sunday, December 21, 2008

You Can Lobby the Incoming Administration

An important part of advocating for our servicemembers, veterans and their families is to "petition the government for redress of grievances". However, this can be difficult since we are nearly 300 million Americans; letters, phonecalls and emails can get lost in the flood. Few of us can afford the time away from work and/or family to knock on the White House door.

However, the incoming Obama Administration has an innovative website which (in theory) makes it easier for individuals and small groups. How this works in practice remains to be seen but it costs nothing to try to influence our government on important issues.

Go the http://www.change.gov/ (not http://www.change.org/, which is a private advocacy site, not a bad thing, but it's different; and not http://www.change.com/, which is a site specializing in underwear, again not necessarily a bad thing to change as needed.)

Within that site are various topics. You can click around to the ones that interest you, use the search feature, or go directly to a few that I've listed below.

Then ... and this is the IMPORTANT part ... click on the "Submit Your Ideas" box to share your ideas. And get your friends & family to do the same.

Don't be shy. This is what our nation's Founders envisioned!

Topics I suggest you try

Please note I am NOT telling you HOW you should think on these issues; it's just my opinion that you SHOULD think on them.

A shout-out to http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/ whose recent bulletin inspired this posting.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

GI Bill Implementation Plan

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 or “New GI Bill” has been enacted into law, but how will it be implemented in reality is yet to be seen.

Military.com reports:
"VA Outlines Plans for New GI Bill Implementation - November 25, 2008

On Tuesday, November 18, 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs offered details on their implementation plans for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008. Keith Wilson, Director of the Office of Education Service, unveiled their interim plan to meet the requirements of benefits delivery in the short-term and long term.

According to Wilson, VA has begun improving the current information technology (IT) system internally in order to meet the August 2009 deadline and he expects to keep this system in place until November 2010.

Wilson told congress that the plan relies on increased automation and an expected increase in staffing of as much as 400 employees. The report indicates that VA will begin hiring in January and expects to be fully staffed by March 2009.

Mr. Wilson also detailed their long-term plan, expected to go into effect near the end of 2010. The long-term plan will rely on support from the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) to help develop a permanent rules-based automated system.

Related Articles:
VA’s GI Bill Implementation Timeline

The full article by 10Meters.com.

Please read more about the Post 9/11 GI Bill on Military.com.

You are also encouraged to visit the VA GI Bill website to make sure you fact-check all the rumors and completely understand the new benefit and its purpose"

(Full Article Here)

Kudos to Military.com for reporting on this and other important issues. Check out its GI Bill Overview! And, when in doubt, check the official GI Bill website: http://www.gibill.va.gov/, especially its GI Bill FAQ.

Friday, December 19, 2008

DOJ Ends Investigation of Homecomings Financial on Mortgage Prepayment Penalties

Some financial institutions just don't get the message when servicemembers assert their rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). For example, when Master Sergeant Brenda S. Gomez received a permanent change of station order transferring her to a new base and therefore sold her home, the mortgagerholder Homecomings Financial refused to waive the prepayment penalty.

Eventually the Department of Justice got involved and has just announced that its investigation of Homecomings Financial has been "resolved". While this is no doubt welcome news for the individuals involved, it's worth noting that there is no mention of penalties or other incentives to avoid future behavior; the malefactor has merely "implemented a modified policy".

It doesn't even suggest whether the Master Sergeant, whose money was withheld contrary to law, was able to earn interest while Homecomings held on to it. One really wonders about who actually won in this case ...

But, take good news where you can find it. Here's the DOJ press release:
"Department of Justice
Monday, December 15, 2008
(202) 514-2007
TDD (202) 514-1888
The Justice Department Resolves Investigation Under Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of Homecomings Financial, LLC

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department today announced the resolution of its investigation of Homecomings Financial, LLC (Homecomings), under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The SCRA suspends or modifies certain civil obligations of individuals serving on active duty in the military.

The Department of Justice initiated its SCRA investigation in response to an inquiry from Master Sergeant Brenda S. Gomez. Master Sergeant Gomez received a permanent change of station order transferring her to a new base. When she sold her home to move closer to the new base, Master Sergeant Gomez requested that Homecomings waive the prepayment penalty on her residential mortgage loan, but her request was denied.

While the Justice Department’s investigation was pending, Homecomings agreed to refund Master Sergeant Gomez’s $9,144 prepayment penalty. In addition, Homecomings, which is owned by Residential Funding Company, LLC, and is a subsidiary of GMAC, LLC, implemented a modified policy to waive the prepayment penalties of servicemembers who may find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.

"By adjusting certain civil obligations, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act allows men and women on active duty to focus on the defense of this Nation," said Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "The Civil Rights Division is encouraged by the steps Homecomings has taken on behalf of Master Sergeant Gomez and servicemembers nationwide."

Homecomings and GMAC Mortgage, LLC now will waive prepayment penalties upon request on residential mortgage loans obtained by active duty servicemembers who receive permanent change of station orders to bases 30 miles or more from their current residences. This modified policy applies to all loans on owner-occupied properties serviced by Homecomings or GMAC Mortgage, LLC with respect to which one of the following entities retains the contractual right to receive the prepayment penalty: Homecomings or GMAC Mortgage, LLC or either entity's affiliates, including, but not limited to, the Residential Funding Company, LLC and GMAC Bank.

Since 2006, when the Civil Rights Division received enforcement authority for the SCRA from the Attorney General, the Division has reviewed numerous allegations of SCRA violations, has brought one suit under SCRA, and has resolved a number of allegations without the need for litigation. Examples include investigations under the SCRA’s provision for a six percent interest rate cap, termination of residential lease agreements, repossession of vehicles without a court order, foreclosure on home mortgage loans without court orders, and waiver of prepayment penalties on home mortgage loans.

Servicemembers and their dependents who believe that their SCRA rights have been violated should contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office. Please consult the military legal assistance office locator at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil and click on the Legal Services Locator. Additional information on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA and the other laws protecting servicemembers is available at www.servicemembers.gov."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The American Veterans and Servicemembers Survival Guide

The American Veterans and Servicemembers Survival Guide is a web-based book, available free for download at http://www.veteransforamerica.org/survival-guide/survival-guide-download/

As reviewed by Veterans for Common Sense (whose executive director contributed to the work):
"The new Survival Guide is a follow-up to the 1985 national bestseller, The Viet Vet Survival Guide. Just as the earlier book was a must-read for Vietnam veterans, the new book will prove an invaluable resource for the 1.7 million servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the 24 million veterans of past conflicts, and the families of all our troops and veterans. Unlike the earlier guide, the new Survival Guide is free.

The new book is as much a roadmap as a reference manual, detailing the benefits, assistance and resources available as well as the step-by-step directions for navigating the bureaucracies that serve our troops and veterans. The new Survival Guide contains 28 chapters, including 17 for veterans and their families and 11 for active-duty servicemembers, National Guard members and reservists, and their families. From legal to health services, job assistance to women’s issues, the new Survival Guide is designed to meet everyone’s needs."
You can get a sense of the work from the introduction:
"Life is unfair — John F. Kennedy

This book will help you survive in the world of the veteran. This world, like the world at large, is not a fair world. Your country asked you to take years out of your life and to risk life itself. But when you came back, it gave you some praise but little comfort. Instead, it gave you the VA.

Though there are other federal agencies that benefit the veteran, and though there are many state programs for veterans, the VA (formerly the Veterans Administration and now the Department of Veterans Affairs, but always called the VA) is more important to most vets than all the rest combined.

But the VA isn’t what it should be. It’s a bureaucracy. Full of programs that cover enough vets and programs that don’t, full of people who care and people who don’t, full of prompt responses and endless delays and full of rules, rules, rules.

VA medical care can repair your body. VA educational benefits can put you through school. VA disability compensation and pensions can pay many of your bills. VA loan guarantees can make it possible for you to buy a home.

But to get the most out of the VA, or the Small Business Administration or the veterans department in your home state, you have to know what you’re doing. You have to know the benefits to which you’re entitled, the problems you may face and how to solve them and where to go for help."

You can download the whole book as a single PDF (large)
link but it may be better to take it chapter-by-chapter, covering each topic as you need it:

Chapters include:
  • Contents and Introduction, Chapter 1: Basic Survival Skills
  • Chapter 2: The Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Chapter 3: Service-Connected Compensation
  • Chapter 4: Need-Based Pension for Low-Income Veterans or Survivors
  • Chapter 5: Explaining the VA Claims and Appeals Process
  • Chapter 6: VA Attemps to Recover “Overpayments”
  • Chapter 7: Educational Assistance and Vocational Rehabilitation
  • Chapter 8: VA Housing Programs
  • Chapter 9: VA Medical Care
  • Chapter 10: VA Programs for Veterans’ Family Members and Survivors
  • Chapter 11: Employment, Self-Employment and the Small Business Administration
  • Chapter 12: Re-Employment Rights and Associated Rights for Time Spent in Military Service
  • Chapter 13: Homeless Veteran Programs
  • Chapter 14: Veterans in the Criminal Justice System
  • Chapter 15: Upgrading Less-Than-Fully-Honorable Discharges
  • Chapter 16: Correcting Military Records and Related Issues
  • Chapter 17: Getting Your Military Records
  • Chapter 18: Early Discharge or Separation
  • Chapter 19: Disability Separation and Retirement
  • Chapter 20: Advice for Families and Caregivers of Wounded Servicemembers and Veterans
  • Chapter 21: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)
  • Chapter 22: Benefits for Active-Duty Servicemembers’ Families
  • Chapter 23: Voting Rights Issues
  • Chapter 24: National Guard and Reserve Call-Up Issues
  • Chapter 25: Family Law Issues for Servicemembers
  • Chapter 26: Women Servicemembers and Veterans
  • Chapter 27: Overview of the Uniform Code of Military Justice
  • Chapter 28: Immigration, Obtaining U.S. Citizenship through Military Service
  • Appendix
Kudos to the authors for this notable work ... available free at http://www.veteransforamerica.org/survival-guide/survival-guide-download/

spread the news at digg.com

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wisconsin Legal Assistance to Military Personnel

Active duty service members may wish to go first to Armed Forces Legal Assistance's nice online database to "locate active duty legal activities offering general legal services within the continental United States". A query for the state of Wisconsin is here

Although Wisconsin does not at present have a Section on Legal Services for Military Personnel, the Wisconsin State Bar offered some useful resources in response to Sept 11. An article article on WisBar's website describes how Wisconsin's legal community planned to offers assistance to those affected by Sept. 11 events:

Free seminars for lawyers

The State Bar - in partnership with the Government Lawyers and Young Lawyers divisions and local bars - is organizing a series of free CLE programs. More than 100 attorneys attended the live Oct. 4 seminar at the State Bar Center in Madison. The videotaped program is scheduled for Oct. 24, from 1:30 - 3:30 p.m., at statewide locations. The program will familiarize attorneys with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act. Lawyers who attend a seminar will be added to a list of volunteers to offer pro bono legal assistance to our Wisconsin National Guard and federal reserve military personnel who are called to service.

Assistance to lawyers going into active service

The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program is maintaining a list of attorneys who served in other military operations. Many attorneys who left their practices to serve in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf are available to offer advice to attorneys faced with similar issues today. If you are in need of assistance in preparing your practice for your absence, or if you'd like to volunteer to assist other lawyers, contact Shell Goar at the State Bar at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6172.

Volunteer mediation services

The Marquette University Law School, the Marquette University Center for Dispute Resolution, and the Wisconsin Association of Mediators, in cooperation with the State Bar of Wisconsin, are developing a Peacemaker Project to provide pro bono mediation services to those directly affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Among those eligible for mediation services will be offered to help resolve conflict or disputes are families of active duty military personnel; contact Prof. Janine Geske at (414) 288-7877, P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881 or jpg@execpc.com.
It would be helpful to get an update on the implementation of these projects. Feel free to include your findings in a comment below!

Pro Bono Support

Attorneys seeking to provide pro bono services for servicemembers, veterans or their families should check out Wisconsin's praiseworthy Pro Bono insurance program. If you're considering setting up a clinic, you may consider Pro Bono Initiative grant from its Legal Assistance Committee.

General Purpose Help

WisBar also offers a Lawyer Referral and Information Service that, not limited to military personnel, can be helpful to servicemembers & families seeking advice. Typically, the first half-hour of telephone consultation is only $20, according to its website; there is also a Lawyer Hotline that can be free and useful for matters such as landlord/tenant, small claims court, basic family law, simple wills, bankruptcy and traffic issues. There is also a Modest Means program for persons whose income is too high to qualify for free legal services, but too low to pay a lawyer’s standard rate: http://www.legalexplorer.com/lawyer/lawyer-notafford.asp

The Findlaw website has a city-by-city list of lawyers interested in representing active-duty military personnel, military reservists, and veterans here.

Anyone with more information on these or other programs, please add in a comment below. The purpose is service!
See also

Friday, December 5, 2008

Washington State Pro Bono Program for National Guard members

"When a soldier came to my office with a problem, I was able to solicit a volunteer attorney to assist the soldier... ."

Here's an article describing Attorneys Assisting Citizen-Soldiers & Families (AACF), an innovative program in Washington State for getting volunteer lawyers to help troops deployed and their familiers: Supporting Our Troops: Providing Pro Bono Service to National Guard Members, Washington State Bar News, December 2008.

This was one of my most interesting project in 2008, and may be a pilot for bigger and better to come!
digg story

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

West Virginia Legal Assistance to Military Personnel

The West Virginia legal community offers a variety of resources to provide legal assistance to military personnel.

For the Warrior Community

  • Active duty service members may wish to go first to Armed Forces Legal Assistance's nice online database to "locate active duty legal activities offering general legal services within the continental United States". A query for the state of West Virginia is here
  • The Findlaw website has a city-by-city list of lawyers interested in representing active-duty military personnel, military reservists, and veterans here.
  • Legal Aid of West Virginia provides free advocacy services to West Virginians; local troops & families might be eligible as anyone else, subject to the program's limits: http://www.lawv.net/Home/PublicWeb/About

For Lawyers

There is an immediate need for lawyer-volunteers at a June 6 readiness event at Camp Dawson, to help the 363rd Military Police Company prepare for deployment. Contact Matt Thorne at matthew.t.thorn@gmail.com ASAP. See More information here.

In 2007, the West Virginia State Bar created a Veterans and Military Affairs Committee (see http://www.wvbar.org/BARINFO/lawyer/2007/julyaug2007.pdf) As Bar President Steven Johnton Knopp announced:
"...I will take action to add a Standing Committee to
deal with Veterans and Military issues. Many of us are veterans
or are related or know veterans and their families. I know that
we can do more to help those veteran and military families both
within and without the State Bar in and with their legal prob-
The committee has a solid roster but (as anyone who has served on one can testify) these committees do often take some time to really get rolling.
In the meantime, WVBAR is listed on the ABA's LAMP directory as having free one on one to reservists and families. It is possible that this refers to some services not specifically directed at troops & families, but potentially of assistance. Notable is WVBAR's Lawyer Information Service, a program to provide basic legal information to citizens throughout West Virginia. Every Tuesday evening from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., lawyers volunteer their time to answer questions that are presented by men and women throughout West Virginia on a toll free telephone line - 1-800-642-3617. The lawyers listen to the citizens’ comments and provide general basic legal information. Please see http://www.wvbar.org/BARINFO/services/lis.asp  - no doubt they will need volunteers as do most such programs.
WVBAR also has a Lawyer Referral Service; per its website:
"...All lawyers participating in the Lawyer Referral Service have agreed to provide a consultation of up to 1/2 hour for a fee of no more than $25 which should be paid at the time of the consultation. Any further fees or retainers will be charged at the attorney's regular rate. If citizens can not afford an attorney, they may wish to contact Legal Aid of WV..."

West Virginia State Bar Association

WVSBA is a voluntary, private association of lawyers and associates, to be distinguished from the West Virginia State Bar. I didn't find anything relevant to servicemembers on its site, but things may have been added later. See http://www.wvbarassociation.org .

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Atomic Test Veteran Gets Disability Restored

It sounds like a Monty Python routine.

  • Order young soldiers to put on goggles and hop into in a slit trench
  • Set off an atomic bomb
  • Order the young soldiers to walk to the crater, M-1s at the ready, simulating an attack
  • When they come back, burn their uniforms, give them a good shower, and swear them to silence.
That was "Operation Teapot" - but we haven't got to the punch line yet. Years later, when they get strange cancers, give them 30% disability; but when the cancer goes into remission, take away the disability.

What's a veteran to do?

Some probably just die. Veterans are not entitled by law to assistance in filing their claims, and there's no reason that a typical American citizen would be especially skilled at maneuvering the mazes of the VA claim process. As reported in VA Watchdog, a study by University of Illinois professor Melinda F. Podgor found that 90 percent of disability claims by atomic veterans have been denied by the VA.

And there's always the chance that the VA might just shred some documents.

But some atomic veterans persist and recently, Army veteran Joe Cohen got his disability reinstated, as reported by Richard Liebson at LoHud.com:

"... Five decades after Army veteran Joe Cohen took part in atomic bomb tests in Nevada, and five years after the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped the disability checks he had been receiving as compensation for the cancer those tests caused, the retired transportation executive has been informed that, at long last, his appeal has been approved.

Cohen was a private in an ordnance company in 1955 when his unit was tapped to participate in Operation Teapot, a series of atomic tests at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada. Twice that year he and his buddies huddled in trenches while atomic devices were detonated. The soldiers wore no special equipment other than the goggles each man was handed on the way to their foxholes.

In 1996 Cohen, like many of his fellow "atomic veterans," was diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia caused by radiation exposure. He filed a claim with the VA and began receiving 30 percent disability checks. The checks stopped in 2003, when the VA informed him that because his cancer was in remission, he was no longer entitled to the benefit.

Cohen appealed, and the long wait began.

"They never took any action," he said. "I'm sure they just hoped that I would give up and go away. Unfortunately, it seems like that's how the VA handles things. But it's not in my personality to quit when I'm right. Our government has an obligation to veterans and their families, and I wasn't going to let the VA shirk their responsibility."

Cohen started writing to the VA on a regular basis, building a file of more than 200 documents that he said "show how they were just giving me the runaround."

He contacted U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Reps. Nita Lowey and John Hall, who began pressuring the VA to hear his appeal. In September, The Journal News published an article about his plight. That same week, Schumer's office informed Cohen that a hearing on his appeal had finally been scheduled.

On Tuesday came a letter from Joseph Collagi of the VA's New York regional office, notifying Cohen that he had won his appeal.

"I don't feel elated, I feel exhausted,'' he said. "It's like after five years a weight has been lifted from me. But I'm just one guy; There are thousands of veterans out there who are suffering while the VA drags its feet. I think that if it wasn't for pressure from the elected officials and the publicity from the story in The Journal News, I'd still be waiting. It shouldn't have to come to that."

With a growing backlog of disability claims, the VA has been under fire in recent months from veterans groups and public officials for its lack of efficiency. In September, Hall said the VA had more than 830,000 claims pending and that without dramatic changes the number could top 1 million next year.

Cohen said he hopes to work with veterans groups and elected officials to keep prodding the VA on behalf of other veterans with outstanding claims.

"We can't let up,'' he said. "We have to keep fighting. We can't say we've won until the VA has corrected its problems and is as responsive as it should be."

The full article about Cohen is at http://www.lohud.com/article/2008811300358

There's More To Be Done

It's important to remember that Operation Teapot was far from the only opportunity our troops had to be injured by radiation in the course of duty. Operation Crossroads involved perhaps 37,000 troops for whom getting a disability rating can be a problem. According to Ray Beatty, a sailor who spent a lot of time cleaning up contamination with rags, his claim is on its fourth appeal; see "Atomic vet recalls 1946 bomb tests — and dirty aftermath".

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has a rather sanguine Operation TEAPOT fact sheet which should be carefully parsed; it does have a helpful note:

For information related to claims, call the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at 1-800-827-1000 or the Department of Justice (DOJ) or 1-800-729-7327. For test participation verification or radiation dose reconstruction, call the Nuclear Test Personnel Review (NTPR) program at 1-800-462-3683.
The National Association of Atomic Veterans http://www.naav.com/ may be a helpful resource for persons seeking to help veterans file disability claims based on exposure to atomic tests.