In 2014, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates urged law schools to establish legal clinics to serve veterans. Dozens of law school veterans clinics have since opened or are in development.
There are various models for law school veterans clinics. Some law school clinics focus on helping veterans who enter the criminal justice system. Others assist veterans with their Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims. Still others provide general legal services to veterans.
At Pitt Law our veterans’ clinic strives to become a national leader in pursuing military discharge upgrades for deserving veterans.
Our discharge upgrade practice addresses the problems of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other mental health disorders caused by service. It has been reported that up to 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan returning veterans may suffer from PTSD, TBI, or depression.
Such veterans often exhibit behavioral changes that can lead to disciplinary issues and a less than fully honorable discharge from service. An “other than honorable” discharge is stigmatizing, and usually bars a veteran from receiving nearly all VA benefits. A slightly less stigmatizing “general” discharge causes the veteran to lose tens of thousands of dollars in VA educational benefits. These less than full honorable discharges are often a barrier to employment as well.
The plight of our Vietnam veterans is particularly compelling. The services did not recognize a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder during that conflict, and soldiers and Marines were often separated less than honorably with the diagnosis of a “personality disorder” or another condition not recognized as a disability. Instead of receiving the medical care and compensation they deserved, they got nothing.
Few private lawyers handle these cases due to the extensive time and effort required to prepare and present them. Moreover, litigating cases with the military poses unique challenges not present in other forms of litigation. For one thing, the services do not publish their regulations in the Federal Register or Code of Federal Regulations, and locating the “law” applicable to an individual veteran’s separation proceeding can be challenging.
Still, it is possible to win these cases with careful research and adequate preparation and at Pitt Law, obtaining discharge upgrades for deserving veterans is part of the mission of the students and faculty in our clinic.