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Joe Surkiewicz: Veterans conference is an opportunity to serve

Few issues are more compelling than the struggles disabled military veterans face with homelessness, especially when they are owed disability benefits that could get or keep them off the streets.

In Maryland, private lawyers and several nonprofits have joined together to help those veterans —and on June 7 they will sponsor the “5th Annual Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference & Training: An Opportunity to Serve Those Who Served Our Country.”

“The conference is a great way to bring people together who want to provide the best service possible to veterans,” said Charles Blomquist, a assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore and Maryland National Guard lieutenant colonel who has served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. “It brings a holistic approach to helping generations of veterans ranging from Viet Nam to Iraq.”

Blomquist is also a member (and former chair) of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Military Law and Veterans Affairs committee, which, together with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Pro Bono Resource Center, and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Clinical Law Program, has co-sponsored the conference for the past five years.

“The committee focuses on the legal perspective to assist, advocate and be a resource for veterans with legal issues,” he said. “We provide pro bono and ‘low bono’ legal services, or link veterans to services. We also create more awareness of the issues veterans face.”

This year’s conference, which will take place at UM Carey Law, is designed for lawyers, law students, veterans, policymakers and other service professionals.

Attendees will participate in a discussion of critical legal issues that include claims processing changes at the Baltimore VA Regional Office, women in combat, compliance with the Service Members Civil Relief Act, and other topics.

The keynote speaker is Air National Guard Maj. Mary Hegar, the lead plaintiff in Hegar et al. v. Panetta, which challenges the Defense Department’s longstanding policy barring women from thousands of ground combat positions, known as the “combat exclusion policy.”

Hegar is a highly decorated helicopter pilot who has served three tours in Afghanistan, where she piloted hundreds of Medevac missions to pick up wounded soldiers and civilians from battlefields.

The conference also includes training for lawyers interested in representing veterans pro bono in claims for service-connected disability benefits.

HPRP and PBRC launched the Veterans Legal Assistance Project in 2008 to respond to a major gap in the delivery of legal services to homeless veterans, or those at risk of becoming homeless, by training volunteer attorneys to represent them.

“We recognized that there was no public interest program addressing veterans’ needs,” said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center. “So we brought people together to talk about it. We thought it was a high priority.

“When Antonia Fasanelli took over as executive director at HPRP in 2008, it looked like it would be a good fit there,” Goldsmith continued. “The project fills an incredible gap, although it’s challenging and compelling work.”

The annual conference is an important opportunity to educate and train attorneys and other interested people who can then help homeless or nearly homeless veterans with claims for service-related disability benefits, Fasanelli said.

“The need for service and understanding their needs is even more critical now” than when the project started, she said.

“Previous conferences have looked at issues such as representing veterans who were victims of sexual trauma, family law issues for deployed military members and their families, the Veterans Administration’s plan to eliminate homelessness — cutting-edge issues,” Fasanelli added.

The conference is also co-sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, and the Veterans and Military Law Section of the Federal Bar Association.

There is no charge for the training or the one-day conference (which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), but advance registration is required. Out-of-state attorneys are also welcome.

To register for the June 7 conference or training, visit www.probonomd.org.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.