On April 17, 2009, the MSBA Military Law Committee and its partners, the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), The University of Maryland School of Law, Leadership in Public Service Program, Career Development Office, and the Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC), hosted their first annual conference at the University of Maryland School of Law, addressing various issues facing veterans. The event included a number of guest speakers, including the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the State of Maryland and Adjutant General for the State of Maryland, Brigadier General James A. Adkins.
The conference highlighted the joint efforts across service organizations and governmental entities in support of our nation’s veterans and demonstrated how each individual can help support these efforts. The answer can be summarized simply – demonstrate you CARE:
- First, show Compassion for our Veterans. For many veterans, their perspective on the value of life, including their own, may have been altered significantly during their combat experience. Veterans often leave home for war with a certain innocence that is lost in their experience. When they return home, they may have new problems, and these problems may not always manifest themselves in the observable physical injuries that the public is more accustomed to seeing. In increasing numbers, this includes veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Veterans suffering from PTSD often re-experience the trauma and emotions of war long after returning from the battlefield, which can render the person almost unable to function normally in his or her daily life. These risks, coupled with the stresses caused upon returning home to families who have been separated for over a year, puts many veterans in more difficult situations than an average person. Understanding this will put you as a lawyer in a better position to offer not only legal but practical and helpful advice.
- Second, you should be able to Advise Veterans of Their Rights. Federal, state and local governments have, in recent years, made exceptional efforts to provide protections and benefits for veterans. As with many programs and laws, the average person may need the help of a lawyer to understand not only their rights but how to get help if they are encroached upon.
Two significant laws stand out in importance to helping veterans: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is comprehensive legislation designed to help servicemembers protect their personal financial interests while putting so much at risk on behalf of their country. The Act recognizes that military life is dissimilar to civilian life. Servicemembers move frequently, often have no permanent residence, seldom live in their state of legal residence, and may put themselves at significant financial risk each time they are called to active duty.
Among the most significant provisions of the SCRA is the reduction of interest rates on all debts entered prior to active duty service, throughout the duration of the service, to 6 percent. The Act also tolls certain statutes of limitations while the servicemember is serving, and stays civil proceedings. Other provisions impact default judgments against servicemembers, limiting evictions and seizure of property. Furthermore, the Act extends many of its protections to servicemembers’ spouses, since they too have sacrificed in support of their loved ones.
Generally speaking, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects national guard and reserve soldiers who leave their civilian jobs and are called to active duty. The law provides those soldiers with job security, knowing that when they return, they will have a job waiting for them. The law ensures prompt reinstatement, entitles the servicemember to continue to accrue seniority while serving, requires the employer to provide training or accommodation for disabilities when the servicemember returns, and has special protections to prevent unlawful discharge. However, the servicemember must meet certain requirements to be eligible. Most importantly, the servicemember must give written notice to his or her employer prior to leaving the job and cannot exceed a five-year cumulative period of absence. Lastly, upon return from active duty, the servicemember must be released honorably and report back to his or her civilian job in a timely manner.
- As a lawyer helping veterans, a key function is to know the Resources That Are Available. Attorneys should be familiar with the website and phone numbers for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as well as the guidebooks on how to apply for VA benefits. Next, Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs has numerous links and resources to veterans outreach programs, education, and job opportunities. Of note is HOMEFRONT’s website, www.bcpl.info/info/comm/comm_veteran.htm, which has links to relevant resources. Lastly, lawyers should be aware of research material like the SCRA Guide and contact information for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (NCESGR).
- Having these resources will help you Ensure Veterans Meet Their Obligations in Order to Avail Themselves of Their Rights. For instance, veterans need to establish their periods of military service to show eligibility for benefits. The veteran’s discharge paperwork, or DD214, is the most common means of establishing military service. Additionally, veterans may need copies of medical records and other military documents. Furthermore, the DD214 has to be correct. Knowing how to get a copy of the DD214, or how to request corrections through the Army Review Boards Agency, or other organization, may need to be done in a timely manner in order to get a veteran the care he or she needs.
The first annual conference was a success by several measures. Making an event of this magnitude a reality is always a challenge, but the greater risk was that this good idea of law student Noah Isserman, Schweitzer Fellow, might been left an unfilled dream. Thanks to the generous support of MSBA, the Reuben Shiling Mental Health Law Foundation, the University of Maryland School of Law, and a grant from the 2009 American Bar Association Enterprise Fund Veterans Advocacy Pro Bono Project, plus the tireless efforts of the staff at HPRP, PBRC, and the law school, the event exceeded all expectations.
The Military Law Committee recently formed a veterans subcommittee to work with partners on a variety of issues, including the next veterans’ benefits training program – held from noon until 5:00 p.m., Friday, October 16, 2009, in Room 205 at the University of Maryland School of Law – as well as next year’s veterans’ conference.
Thomas H. Barnard is an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate with the Maryland National Guard.