GULFPORT — A group of students from Stetson University has heard the call to fix the veterans affairs system and is offering a clinic to help veterans navigate their benefits.
The students are from the university's College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic and have been providing their services to help those who served in the military learn about the claims process of the VA.
“We practice mostly disability benefits and help some veterans with discharge upgrades," Clinic Director Stacey-Rae Simcox told WUSF.
While the students are working hard, they are not alone.
Simcox thinks there are now more than 50 law schools across the country with active legal clinics or clinics in the planning stages that are focused on helping those in military service. Some, such as one at George Mason University, have specialized in legal assistance for those in active duty. Others have worked with particular needs in surrounding the GI Bill, with the veterans treatment court and with providing disability assistance.
The clinics work independently of each other, but that doesn’t mean that they work without each other. They are in constant communication discussing policies, responses and particular cases. If there’s a particularly tricky case, it’s helpful to see if anyone else has handled one like it. It’s learning law in a practical way.
While the schools have acted autonomously as a loose collective, there has been a recent move to bring some structure to their processes. Stetson has joined with the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic, known as The Puller Clinic at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago to form the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium (NLSVCC).
Their goal is to “gain support and advance common interests with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Congress, state and local veterans service organizations, court systems, educators and all other entities for the benefit of veterans throughout the country.”
Patricia Roberts, who chairs the NLSVCC, said they are serving a very real need.
“Research shows that legal support ranks as one of their (veterans) highest unmet needs," she said.
According to a report issued by the VA, "five out of the top 10 problems contributing to homelessness among veterans...are unlikely to be solved without legal help.”
The NLSVCC is hoping to attack these problems from two directions, providing legal aid pro bono to help veterans and work to change policy. The goal would be to see the need for legal help go down because the services on the front end were more efficient and effective.
So while these students may not be able to “fix” the VA, they are certainly doing their part to help those in need navigate the system to get the help they need and deserve.