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Joe Surkiewicz: Veterans and the law

For the last six years, the Veterans Legal Assistance Conference and Training has provided a doorway for private attorneys who want to help low-income veterans overcome legal hurdles to obtaining their disability benefits.

This year, however, the June 5 conference at the University of Baltimore School of Law will offer additional training on top of the three hours of continuing legal education that a pro bono lawyer needs to maintain certification with the VA.

“We’re offering a concurrent advanced training on discharge characterization upgrade petitions, where a military member’s other-than-honorable discharge may be a barrier to obtaining VA benefits, housing and employment,” said Hugh McClean, a UB Law professor and director of the law school’s Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic.

PTSD and TBI

Another advanced training session will focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. “A panel of psychologists and lawyers will discuss how to develop medical evidence for mental health cases,” McClean said. “The success of these cases hinges on medical evidence.”

The advanced training is being offered in part because the Parsons law clinic specializes in those cases.

“We have formed relationships with medical providers in the community that have allowed us to develop expertise in PTSD and TBI,” McClean explained. “We just completed our first academic year, graduating 10 students who counseled 50 veterans. More than 50 percent of those veteran cases involved mental health disorders. We dedicated over 1,820 student hours to helping them.”

The law clinic is part of the UB veterans initiative, which also encompasses a veterans psychology clinic and a student center at UB. The initiative is supported by Bob Parsons, a UB alumnus and Vietnam veteran.

Different approaches

“The initiative assists veterans in a variety of ways,” McClean said. “Students transitioning from the military to academia have found a home at UB. Law students have counseled veterans, educated community members on veterans issues, and even obtained employment with the VA.”

The conference, which is free, will go beyond training lawyers in how to help veterans obtain VA disability benefits.

“It will include training on lesser known benefits, like special monthly compensation, and aid and assistance benefits for veterans that require the aid of another person or are homebound,” McClean said. “There will also be training on the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, a law that protects military members who leave a civilian job for military service and then come back to it.”

Another topic is the upcoming judicial docket for veterans.

Veterans Court

“The Veterans Treatment Court initiative is gaining ground finally,” McClean said. “A panel will discuss the recent progress made on bringing a veterans docket to Baltimore City, which is expected to begin in the fall.

“The Baltimore VA hospital and benefits offices have reached out and offered their services to the courts,” he continued. ”Both the VA hospital administration and the benefits administration play a critical role in helping justice-involved veterans obtain treatment they earned through their military service. The goal is to expedite services to justice-involved veterans—and everyone is on board.”

The all-day event’s keynote speaker is Susan Burke, a Baltimore attorney with an international reputation.

“Susan Burke has represented clients in high profile cases and will bring a unique perspective on prominent issues facing the military,” McClean said. “She has represented midshipmen at the Naval Academy on military sexual trauma cases, and Iraqi victims in settlements for injuries and deaths following the Blackwater massacre.

“She also represented victims in the Abu Ghraib torture cases,” he added. “She has been involved with the most pressing issues facing the military — detainee abuse and prisoner torture, military sexual trauma, and the privatization of military security functions.”

Conference organizers include the Pro Bono Resource Center, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, UB Law, the Bob Parsons Advocacy Clinic at UB, and the Veterans’ Affairs and Military Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Co-sponsors include the Elder Law & Disability Rights Section of the MSBA, the Veterans and Military Law Section of the Federal Bar Association, and the law firm of Saul Ewing LLP.

Event details

When: Friday, June 5

Where: UB School of Law

Time: Conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., followed by a reception sponsored by Saul Ewing LLP.

Details/registration:  The conference is free; the training is free to lawyers who agree to a pro bono commitment. To register: Kiah Pierre, 443-703-3046 or [email protected]

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].