Can UCI Law Help the Extreme Underrepresentation of Veterans?

Bree Oswald, Class of 2016

In the beginning of November, I had the pleasure of attending the Second Annual National Conference on Law Clinics Serving Veterans in Washington, DC. Accompanying me were fellow clinic students Alexis Federico and Morgan McCombe, and our adjunct clinical Professor, Antoinette Balta. The National Law School Veterans Clinic Coalition, which includes UCI Law School among its members, hosts the Conference.

The Coalition’s mission is to connect veterans with much needed legal services and to unite law school clinics in creating a unified force of competent future attorneys. I am extremely proud that our school can join in this mission.

Over the course of this two day Conference, I learned about other Clinics’ multi-disciplinary approaches to veterans law, how Congress is getting involved, and about the state of the American veteran. Here are some take-aways from the Conference:

There are 21 million veterans throughout the United States—2 million reside in California. There are about 2.6 million post-9/11 veterans and that number is growing. Forty-five percent of post-9/11 veterans are seeking VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) benefits, and 48% of those veterans are currently seeking an increased rating in their degree of disability with the VA.

Many of these claims are being denied at a regional level and are now on a journey through the appeals process. The appeals process takes about four and a half years to complete—all the while, the veteran is not receiving compensation from the VA for the disputed disability.

In the first tier of appeals, the Board of Veterans Appeals anticipates that it will receive 74,072 appealed claims by the end of 2015. The second tier of appeals then goes to the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Nearly 300 petitions a year are then filed with the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Court hears about 4,000 cases a year. The vast majorities of these cases are decided by single judges and hold no precedential value.

Lawyers make up less than 10% of the representation of veterans claims on appeal. The majority of appeals are handled by Veterans Service Officers or by a veteran handling a claim pro se.

Why is access to VA Benefits important? VA disability benefits provide monthly income to disabled veterans—often times this is the income that keeps them from becoming homeless. VA Benefits also include access to schooling (the GI Bill), healthcare, and mental health services for issues like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and military sexual trauma. But VA Benefits are only available to veterans that have been honorably discharged from the military.

Some veterans are separated from military service in connection with PTSD, MST, and TBI—and some of those separations result in less-than-honorable discharges. These veterans are not even eligible to spend four and a half years in the appeal process for VA benefits. These veterans seeking corrections to their military records are getting less process than they deserve.

On average, each discharge upgrade claim before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records receives three minutes of review by a judge before a decision is issued. That’s only three minutes to review the veterans military personnel record, VA claims file, and medical treatment records (in service and post-service). That’s only three minutes of review given to the veteran’s personal statement, battle buddy statements, and the brief before the court. That’s just three minutes of review for which most pro se veterans cannot adequately prepare. Just. Three. Minutes.

I am humbled by these statistics. But I am also encouraged to do more. I am proud that UCI Law is involved in aiding veterans not only on their benefits claims, but also on their discharge upgrade and correction of military records cases. We are taking an interdisciplinary approach to veterans law and fighting to end veteran homelessness by economically empowering veterans facing the post-military chapter of their lives.

The Conference has reaffirmed our Veterans Clinic’s mission—we can all do more to help a vet. If these statistics resonate with you, I encourage you to donate a piece of professional clothing to the VAS clothing drive this month to help a veteran in a job interview. Consider doing veterans-centered pro bono work. Sign up for the Clinic. We can all do more to help a vet.