YLS clinic serves veterans

Evenafter they come home from war, veterans face an uphill battle for pensions and employment opportunities when they arrive. A new Yale Law School clinic aims to teach them to navigate the complexities of the legal system.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which began this semester, is designed tohelp veterans upgrade their discharge status — which effects the caliber of job they are able to get at home — and obtain benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other legal concerns. YLS is the only law school in New England with a program that specifically serves veterans, and five students and professors said they think American veterans are chronically underserved when it comes to much-needed legal advice. Still, they said the clinic can and is making an impact.

“I have been struck by how much a small difference in discharge status can have on veterans and their families,” Will Bornstein LAW ’11 said. “Sometimes we are just dealing with small changes in people’s lives, but those changes have huge effects especially when they are low-income and have families.”

Bornstein said the work at the clinic is rewarding because he has seen the positive impact the clinic has on its clients.

All the students who meet with clients through the clinic — eight law students and two psychiatric fellows from the School of Medicine — are also enrolled in a related weekly seminar taught by YLS and School of Medicine faculty. The veterans can seek help on issues ranging from wrongful personality disorder discharges to military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. These can effect a veteran’s ability to apply for jobs and receive compensation from the government, Kate Swenson LAW ’12 said.

All three students interviewed said they became involved in the clinic because the VA, which is instrumental in determining veterans’ lives, is so difficult to maneuver within.

Swenson, whose husband is an infantry officer whose unit recently returned home from Afghanistan, said she joined the clinic after witnessing firsthand the problems veterans face upon their return home.

“Veterans are facing problems no one can understand, and most problems stem very directly from things they are seeing in the service,” she said. “These problems are very close to my heart.”

She added that she and the other clinic participants work with a Connecticut veterans center in West Haven, where they help veterans readjust to life outside of the armed services, and with a public interest association that effects policy change for veterans.

In a press release Oct. 4, clinic founder and YLS professor Michael Wishnie’87 LAW ’93 called the clinic an opportunity for students to provide a meaningful service and engage in interdisciplinary work with mental health professionals.

Wishnie did not respond immediately to requests for comment Thursday.

YLS Professor Jeffrey Selbin, who also teaches in a clinic that helps people with criminal records reintegrate into society, said he joined the new clinic to fill the gap in veteran services.

“Veterans face enormous challenges when they return home,” he said. “And the homeland resources and services for veterans of all eras, perhaps best exemplified by those provided via the Department of Veterans Affairs, are shamefully inadequate and woefully unresponsive to their needs.”

Howard Zonana, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and adjunct professor of law who received an honorary degree in 1992, said he participates in the clinic as part of a forensics psychiatry program he directs. He and his fellows evaluate clients for PTSD, he said, which is an important factor in determining whether veterans qualify for compensation.

There are approximately 250,000 veterans living in Connecticut.

Clarification: October 15, 2010

An earlier version of the article stated that Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93 did not respond to requests for comment Thursday night. He responded at 11 p.m., after the article had gone to press.

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