July 23, 2008

Grant funds law school initiative to assist veterans

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Southern Illinois University School of Law is establishing a program to assist veterans in their disability claim appeals with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs today (July 23) presented the law school with a $100,000 grant to start the Veteran’s Legal Assistance Program. Second- and third-year law students will provide pro bono legal services to veterans who cannot afford or do not have access to legal representation in appealing service-connected disability claims.

“Our brave veterans stood forward and put their lives on the line to defend this country and our freedoms. When they return home, they deserve all the benefits that this nation promised them. With this $100,000 Veterans Cash grant, the SIU School of Law will be able to create a program that will provide Illinois veterans with quality legal services to ensure that they get all the disability and educational benefits they have rightfully earned," said L. Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Interim Chancellor Samuel Goldman said the initiative has several benefits.

“Our veterans have made tremendous sacrifices for all of us, and whenever we can provide them with valuable services, I believe we have an obligation to do so,” he said. “Our law students can provide veterans with quality assistance while benefiting from excellent hands-on experience that can only enhance their education. And they’ll gain the satisfaction that comes from helping others.”

The initiative is “another opportunity to advance the mission of the law school,” Dean Peter C. Alexander said. “It allows us to provide expertise and services to a population that has been underserved -- and that is very consistent with the goals of the law school.

“This is another opportunity for our students to engage in service learning,” he said. “We hope that many veterans take advantage of this opportunity and that we are able to provide services for a lot of veterans.”

John F. Lynn, the law school’s assistant dean for administration, anticipates students working on disability claims from World War II veterans up to current veterans appealing decisions to the Board of Veterans Appeals. He expects the largest caseload will come from veterans with National Guard and Reserve units in rural areas who return home from Iraq and Afghanistan after fulfilling their military service.

“This is a chance to help veterans,” said Lynn, a retired major in the U.S. Marine Corps with more than 20 years military service. “I want to see the system work for them. The satisfaction comes in resolving a case in the veterans’ favor to get them the benefits they deserve, the treatment they might be seeking, or the compensation they might rate.”

There are more than 1 million veterans in Illinois, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. The John Marshall Law School’s Veterans’ Legal Support Center and Clinic in Chicago is the program model. That program started providing services to veterans in January.

The SIU School of Law program will assist veterans in filing initial disability claims, but a primary emphasis is assisting veterans in handling appeals, Lynn said. Third-year, and some second-year law students will work with veterans to ensure the claim includes necessary documents and any supporting evidence. He anticipates a constant caseload of eight to 10 open cases.

“Typically, local veterans will handle the paperwork themselves for the initial claim,” he said. “If it’s not approved, that is where they run into problems. The system becomes complicated. Veterans’ Affairs is not trying to slow this process down. What they want is for the claim to move through the system and they need to have the right file with it.”

The program will assist in relieving what Lynn said are hundreds of disability claim appeals that local veterans service organizations -- such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion -- are not equipped to handle.

The office will be located in Kaplan Hall, across from the law school. Lynn expects the office will open Sept. 1. The one-time residence hall is the new home to the law school’s expanded legal clinics.

Lynn anticipates two student workers and five caseworkers will handle claims. He expects much of the grant will go toward transportation costs as students drive to the three Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veteran Service Offices in Harrisburg, Marion and Murphysboro to meet with clients.

Student interest in the project is already high, he said. There is about a 10 percent veteran population in the law school.

“Ten to 12 students already approached me before we received funding to ask if they could become involved,” Lynn said. “Students have been asking for these types of opportunities to do public interest work. We want the students who attend here to live up to the mission of the law school -- established in the public interest and serving the public good.”

If the pilot program is successful, expanded offerings and opportunities for local attorneys to provide pro bono services are possible, Lynn said. Several attorneys are already expressing interest in offering assistance, he said.

The Veterans Cash Lottery, a $2 scratch-off lottery game started in February 2006, funds the program. One hundred percent of the proceeds go to support Illinois veterans through the Illinois Veterans’ Assistance Trust Fund.

More information on the program is available by contacting Lynn at 618/ 536-7711 or at johnlynn@siu.edu.