Monday, October 19, 2015

MILITARY MONDAYS: HOW WILL YOU SERVE?

We are engaged in the longest war in U.S. history, yet many of us are not impacted at all. Less than 1% of our nation’s population are actively serving, with less than 5% directly impacted by that service. The latest news indicates that existing troop numbers will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, and troops continue to serve in Iraq. Choosing to wear the uniform today brings a very high probability of not only deployment, but repeated deployments. Our all-volunteer force serves bravely, quietly, humbly, and to most of us, invisibly.

In addition to post 9-11 veterans, our nation is enriched by Gulf War veterans, Vietnam veterans, and the increasingly rare Korean War and World War II veterans. Each of them is a trained warrior committed to the ideals of duty, honor and country, and supported in their sacrifices by devoted families. They are alike in their shared sacrifice, purpose, and selflessness; they share experiences and camaraderie that those of us who have not served can only try to imagine.

While very few of us can truly understand the sacrifices made by these brave men and women and their families, all of us can recognize the freedoms and safety we enjoy as a result of those sacrifices. It is time for all of us to consider how we can share the burden and responsibilities of freedom, to create opportunities to do more than say thank you.

Protecting our country and our freedoms is a shared mission; we can all play a part in honoring those who serve through our own actions. These actions can start in our own clinical programs, on the spectrum of modest to grand, yet all impactful. Given that veterans and active duty service members often face legal needs that exceed their financial resources and the scope of services readily available to them, law schools are in a unique position to demonstrate honor through action, while teaching our students the debt we owe to the men and women who preserve our freedoms, and the historical backdrop against which they served.

William & Mary’s Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic recently partnered with Starbucks and their Armed Services Network to start Military Mondays. Twice monthly, Puller Clinic professors and students provide advice and counsel to service members and veterans seeking assistance with disability compensation claims, discharge upgrades related to service-connected disabilities, and preparation for their separation from service. Four hours are scheduled in one hour appointment blocks, with two attorneys and students meeting simultaneously, for up to eight appointments each week in the warm community coffeehouse of our local Starbucks. Alternate Monday afternoons are an opportunity to host For the Love of Country Community Conversations, with a topical speaker and follow-up discussions. In addition to providing us an opportunity to expand our more traditional in-house legal representation by going out into the community, the Starbucks setting helped us to bridge the military-civilian divide by demonstrating service to those who served, and engaging customers and veterans in conversation. More than half a dozen law schools, legal service organizations and Bar Associations are coordinating with Starbucks about replication of Military Mondays in their neighborhoods. If your law school would like to join those efforts, please let me know.

Military Mondays are very rewarding; one student described it as “legal triage,” which is pretty accurate. We can help decipher decisions, share resources, advise next steps, help with form completion, and answer questions. It is a model that could work for any area of the law; given that four of the top ten needs identified by veterans are legal in nature. Sometimes, our afternoons at Starbucks have unexpected and impactful results, personally and professionally. During a recent afternoon, we met with a terminally ill Vietnam veteran who had been awarded a Bronze star for his service; he was at a loss for next steps after repeated denials of his service-connected disabilities. Recognizing he and his family would need more than advice and counsel, we took him on as a client, but before we could meet with him again, he ended up in the hospital. Frantic steps were taken to ensure that he signed the forms we needed to continue his claims in the event of his death, and, when he passed away days later, we were at least consoled by the fact that his claims were preserved and his widow eligible to serve as his substitute. We are told that his last goal was to get his claims into the VA; had we not met with him that Monday afternoon in Starbucks, his claims would have passed away with him.

We chose to define our own Military Mondays by providing advice and counsel to veterans and service members at Starbucks. But whether you choose to replicate the model that we designed with Starbucks; or consider starting your own legal services project or clinic for veterans or service members; or give priority status to any of your clinic applicants who served or are serving; or incorporate the challenges facing our veterans and service members into your course discussions; or hundreds of other ideas you and your students will generate . . . . I challenge you to do something on a Monday to honor our men and women who put on the uniform: any Monday, every Monday, start small and ignite excitement and replication. Encourage your friends, colleagues and students to honor our veterans and service members by taking action on Military Mondays. Let’s start a movement, one that may begin on Veterans’ Day, but does not end there.

 

 

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