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All Aboard the Justice Bus: Serving Native American Veterans in Northern California

This is a guest post by 2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow Austin Baumgarten who is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP and works at Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, CA. Earlier this year he joined Lauren Roberts, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at OneJustice, on a Justice Bus® trip to serve Native American veterans in rural California.

On January 4th and 5th, I had the wonderful opportunity to provide free legal advice to veteran members of the Yurok Tribe and Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California as part of the 2013 University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law OneJustice Justice Bus® Trip to Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The trip itself was an incredible collaboration of four amazing organizations with even more amazing people: the Yurok Tribal Court, OneJustice, University of San Francisco School of Law, and my host organization, Swords to Plowshares.

Our bus left San Francisco early on Saturday morning, and on the drive up to Bay City, CA,  Swords to Plowshares attorneys Katie Dwight and John Robert Unruh joined with Lauren Roberts and Michael Winn of OneJustice to train the USF law students on how they would be conducting the legal clinics. I helped explain to the students how to ask the veterans difficult questions about their service history in a respectful manner. After arriving in Bay City, we set up and ran a legal clinic in the afternoon together as a group. Then on Sunday, Lauren, John, and I supervised half of the USF law students at a Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, while Katie lead the other half the students to the Yurok Tribal Court in Klamath, CA in Del Norte County. At our clinic on the reservation, John and I assisted the students in helping many Vietnam-era veterans with benefits claims and discharge upgrade issues.

I learned so much on this trip from interacting with the veteran clients of the Yurok and Hoopa tribes, and I greatly enjoyed listening to the veterans and helping them with their legal issues. I was shocked, however, by the many obstacles that this rural client population faces. For instance, the closest VA clinic that the Yurok and Hoopa veterans can access is over 100 miles away, and the closest VA hospital is over 300 miles away. Just accessing basic healthcare for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury is incredibly difficult for these veterans. So, while it felt good to be helpful that weekend, I now know that much more needs to be done to help rural veteran populations in the future. My project at Swords at Plowshares is geared towards providing advocacy for service members like those we helped that weekend, especially those with psychiatric disabilities. Our veterans deserve to access their promised benefits no matter where they live, and I am glad OneJustice will continue to allow legal professionals the chance to bring legal services to rural communities. I encourage all those who have the opportunity to participate in a Justice Bus® Trip.

Finally, I wanted to thank Greenberg Traurig for sponsoring my fellowship. I would also like to thank everyone who participated in the trip, including the Yurok Tribal Court, OneJustice, Swords to Plowshares, and all the USF students who sacrificed their winter break to volunteer to help a rural population desperately lacking access to legal services. I would especially like to thank my friend Lauren Roberts of OneJustice, as it was awesome to join forces with another Equal Justice Works fellow. Most importantly, thank you to the veterans of the Yurok and Hoopa tribes who served in our armed forces for inviting us into your communities and allowing us to help.

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