About a year since opening our first legal clinic for veterans, the Veterans Legal Assistance Program (VLAP) held a new legal clinic at the Peninsula Veterans Center in Menlo Park. Since December 2014, VLAP has staffed twice-monthly clinics at the Palo Alto VA hospital and a satellite VA facility in Menlo Park. At these clinics, students interview veteran-clients and help prepare claims alongside pro-bono attorneys from local firms. Students are supervised by attorneys from Swords to Plowshares, a non-profit veterans service organization based in San Francisco that offers myriad services for veterans, including housing, employment training, and legal services. Our work has typically been limited to intake, flagging claims for attorneys, and filing and faxing documents.
The most recent clinic at the Peninsula Veterans Center was different. On the evening of November 18, six Stanford Law School students offered legal assistance to veterans seeking help with VA benefits and other claims such as discharge upgrades. This time, there were no pro-bono attorneys; Stanford law students ran the claim process from beginning to end, intake to follow-up. We listened to clients, discussed options, offered advice, and prepared filings.
Our clientele was also different. For starters, this most recent clinic served veterans that simply cannot make it to our usual afternoon clinics. More importantly, many veterans who reach the Peninsula Veterans Center have “bad paper” – a discharge less than honorable – that prevents them from receiving VA benefits. We don’t typically see veterans with such discharges at other VA facilities because they simply have no reason to be there.
Bad paper, like a conviction, comes with collateral consequences. With anything below an honorable discharge, veterans are no longer eligible for housing vouchers, healthcare, or education benefits. Indeed, like a conviction, bad paper often comes as something of a plea bargain. Often, we hear from veterans that a bad discharge came as a way of avoiding trial. Young servicemembers facing a drug charge in-service are often presented with a choice to go to court martial or to accept bad paper and walk. Worse still, are the stories of a discharge that came under circumstances entirely divorced from the character of service. A veteran we recently helped was convicted and discharged for an act done before he even entered the service and consequently received an Other Than Honorable discharge. He got his papers in federal prison.
In our first evening clinic, we saw 10 veterans, six of whom sought assistance with discharge upgrades. It’s a lengthy process to beat “bad paper,” often taking 12 to 18 months or more before they receive a decision from a review board. And a favorable decision is not the norm. Many veterans tell us about their failed attempts to upgrade a discharge long ago, often by simply writing a letter. Without counsel, these attempts are practically futile. But veterans should know they don’t need to go it alone; legal help for veterans, like that offered by our clinic, is available throughout the Bay Area.
Many thanks go to the attorneys at Swords to Plowshares for their help. They offered essential training, support whenever we faced a challenging legal question, and most importantly, patience. Thanks also goes to the Stanford Law students who volunteered and have put in significant effort to this cause. Along with our supervising attorneys at Swords to Plowshares, we plan to continue staffing these evening clinics at the Peninsula Veterans Center on a monthly basis, in hopes of reaching veterans with bad paper who need our help the most.