You signed up to wear a uniform, to do a job, to serve your country. And somewhere along the way, you got hurt.
You follow the rules, submit your application to Veterans Affairs, wait for an answer. When it comes, one word jumps out. Denied.
What do you do now? Where do you go? Is there anyone who can help?
At Penn State, the answer is now “yes.”
Justin Bish and Rebecca Buckley-Stein are students at Penn State Law. They also are partners in trying to help veterans navigate the maze that is the disability appeals process. The Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic is the newest way law students have of gaining skills while offering advice and assistance to those in need.
It’s an idea that came to them both separately but brought them together to do the work.
For Buckley-Stein, it came about when she had a cousin who was honorably discharged after two tours in Afghanistan. He died within a couple of weeks of leaving the military. She doesn’t know why, but she knew she wanted to help other service members who were returning home or veterans dealing with problems years after being in uniform.
“I’m not a social worker. I can’t help with that,” she said. “But I can help with legal services.”
Bish is a commissioned officer in the Army National Guard. He has seen firsthand what returning soldiers encounter and wanted to be part of a solution. That’s part of what brought him to law school at Penn State after starting his first year elsewhere.
“I couldn’t get the support,” he said. But at Penn State, where he got an undergraduate degree, he found interest.
Michael Foreman is the director of clinics and experiential learning. He is also in charge of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic and took on the job of guiding the veterans clinic as well. The clinic just became fully active after Foreman received certification to handle VA cases.
“It’s a very elaborate process,” he said.
Veterans appeals are not something just any attorney can handle. Very few people in Pennsylvania handle them at all, leaving veterans and service members to try to represent their own interests in a process that not even all professionals have much experience in addressing.
“There aren’t any attorneys that handle veterans appeals around here,” Bish said, adding that there are a million veterans in Pennsylvania — 10,000 in Centre County alone.
Pennsylvania’s backlog of VA cases stands at about 12,000, Buckley-Stein said.
That explains the 700 to 800 hits the clinic’s website has already had, even garnering attention from out of state. Foreman heard from a mother who said she was sending the information to her son.
The backlog has received national attention, including repeated, scathing accounts on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” That has brought pressure to speed up the clock on the wait times, which have been yearslong in some cases.
The problem with that, Buckley-Stein said, is that it can increase the number of denials.
“I think, when decisions are made quickly, you can get decisions that are made wrongly,” she said.
But helping with disability claims is only part of the goal. There are also veterans rights challenges.
Bish said he has seen many National Guardsmen who face issues at work, either being penalized for time taken for service or being taunted for “playing soldier.” Protecting service members from stigma and abuse also falls under the clinic’s mission.
So does using the stories and experiences brought to the clinic to try to change policy, if possible.
That includes evolving definitions of what would constitute a disability, like making sure the kind of injuries that aren’t visible (post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological impacts of combat) are addressed with the same seriousness as physical disabilities.
Right now, only the two students are handling cases, but when Buckley-Stein graduates, two students will take her place. Foreman said the complement of students in any clinic can fluctuate based on need and interest.
What they all hope is that, by focusing on the issue at the law school level, they produce new lawyers who will be able to help fight for veterans wherever they practice.
That is just what the university wants, too.
“There is a clear need for this type of specialized legal assistance, and I’m proud that our Penn State law students have stepped in to provide these services to our veterans and those currently serving in the armed forces,” Penn State President Eric Barron said.
“Penn State has a continuing commitment to serving those who serve our country, and this legal clinic is just one more way we are working to help improve the lives of veterans, current service members and their families,” he said.
The university has been named by U.S. News and World Report as the best school in the country for veterans.
“I’m very proud of Penn State for taking this on,” Buckley-Stein said. “It’s a very special project.”