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The complete and complex picture of a veterans clinic client

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Soldier

On Sept. 9, my clinic partner and I volunteered to conduct intake for veterans at the Ann Arbor VA hospital. It was the first time the Veterans Legal Clinic at Michigan Law was doing something of this sort, so we really did not know what to expect. Nonetheless, we were excited to get our hands dirty and hear some of the issues that were surrounding the local veteran community.

After hearing from three veterans with very emotional problems, I was a little mentally drained. I was looking forward to wrapping up the day and going home to play with my dog. But before we were finished, we had one more intake to complete.

We knew he was a honorably discharged Marine who was just discharged from the hospital. As we wheeled him to our intake corner, we asked him how his day was going, to which he said “just fine.” We then asked him why he was just hospitalized, and he said it was because he was having suicidal thoughts. At this point we became aware that we were likely talking to a person with significant trauma, but a strong desire to internalize his problems.

We then asked an open-ended question to hear his story. He served as a radio operator for the Marine Corps. The car he was riding in hit an IED, and it blew up, giving him a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was medically retired from the military in 2012 and has been receiving benefits ever since. However, on January of this year, his Social Security benefits were turned off for no apparent reason, according to him. He wants us to help him get his SSI payments back as well as help him get 100% disability status.

I didn’t realize that people like my client are fighting for every dollar that they get.

While he was telling his story, I noticed certain things about him. I noticed that his legs were working, but he stood on them and used them as if they were giving him great pain and discomfort. I noticed that his hands were very shaky, and he had trouble writing. I noticed that he spoke in a very soft, reserved voice suggestive to me of insecurity and sadness. On his person, I saw a strong, sturdy frame on a now crippled body – he was probably a great athlete once.

As he told us of his suicidal thoughts and recent diagnosis of severe mental health issues, I couldn’t help but think to myself that this was the prototype of the wounded veteran coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan: a young, athletic soldier who hit an IED and now leads an altered life. While a high school friend of mine was shot and killed in Afghanistan during his service in the Army, this was the first time that I actually met a veteran who was severely wounded during their service in the Middle East. This was the first time that I met a person who has almost given everything for their country and is now is in desperate need of benefits.

This got me very emotional. I felt sad and empathetic at my client’s situation – his life will never be the same again. Because of his service, he will never be able to run in a field, drive a car, play sports, or be fully independent. I also felt angry, that someone who has given things to the military that are without a price tag – his mind and ability to walk – is now fighting for $1,000 or so a month so he can lead a comfortable life.

I always had it in my head that in America, severely wounded veterans that return home live a worry-free life, with the government paying for all of their expenses. I didn’t realize that people like my client are fighting for every dollar that they get. I also felt insecure and guilty – I am a 25-year-old law student whose only real goal in life is to maximize my happiness, Jeremy Bentham-style. I am lucky enough to be healthy in mind and body to follow all of my dreams. Only when I see people like my client do I count my blessings and become thankful that I am healthy – which feels like a selfish and self-involved thing to do.

Finally, at the end of the intake, I felt hopeful. I felt that this was someone that I really want to help, and someone who rightfully deserves my help. I left feeling optimistic that our country should be able to offer someone like my client more benefits, and I could use my lawyering skills and help from my supervisors to do so.

My main takeaway from this experience was the extent to which wounded veterans suffer from their disability. I may have been naïve, but I thought that our country took a little better care of our veterans. I did not know that someone like my client, who is considered 80 percent disabled with suicidal thoughts, is still fighting for benefits and trying to make ends meet. Now, I have heard stories of a completely inefficient, overworked VA that many blame for this problem. It will be interesting to go on throughout this semester with this in mind in determining how much the VA contributes to this huge problem facing our veterans.

Another thing that I learned was that oftentimes, military veterans may not like to be coddled and pampered. We saw that writing was especially hard for our client due to his TBI. We offered a couple times to write things down on the form for him, but he was adamant that he do it himself. He only accepted that we wheel him down to the lobby after our persistence, and even so he wanted to wait there by himself. When setting up a time to get other forms signed, he offered to walk to the law school from the VA – a total of 6 miles! (I quickly nixed that, due to his arthritic legs).

Our client does need physical help, and it will be challenging as we go forward to not cross the line of babying him while also providing the assistance he needs – and doing it in a discreet way. In the future, I will be careful on coddling people with disabilities, especially veterans. Now I know it is a touchy subject and will try to be more sensitive to the specific needs of the individual.

At the end of the day, I am excited to be given the opportunity to help our country’s veterans. I feel that my experience is unique among law students, and I hope that in the future, veteran legal clinic become the norm across our nation’s law schools.

Abraham Matsui Abe Matsui is a third-year student at the University of Michigan Law School. He hails from San Jose, California, where he received his B.A. in Public Service with a minor in Leadership. He currently serves as a student attorney with the Veterans Legal Clinic within the law school.