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Equal Justice at Work: August 2013, Fellows past, present and future serving returning military members

Executive Director's Corner

Fellows past, present and future serving returning military members

Starting in September, we will unleash a new and much larger wave of lawyers and law students focused on the legal needs of veterans. 

In June, we were awarded a grant from AmeriCorps to create our new Veterans Legal Corps, a program that will send 36 lawyers and 360 law students into the field to assist veterans with legal problems.  Since we announced the program, we have been inundated with calls and emails from law firms, nonprofit organizations, law schools, law students and veterans groups interested in partnering with us, demonstrating that there is a tremendous appetite in the legal profession to serve veterans.   One innovation this year is that law students will be starting internships on a rolling basis, including during the school year, providing more opportunities to serve than summer internships exclusively. 

The needs for legal representation among veterans are tremendous -- the backlog of VA disability claims is significant, and veterans face legal issues including, domestic relations, foreclosure, consumer debt, and suspension of drivers licenses.  Any of these problems can result in veterans becoming homeless. 

Our 2013 class of 57 Equal Justice Works Fellows will also be starting their Fellowship projects next month, including seven Fellows focused on veterans issues.  Our veterans work, however, is not new for Equal Justice Works; for several years, we have had Fellows working on behalf of veterans, and the impact has been impressive.  In this newsletter, we profile the inspirational work of two of our Fellows: 2011 Fellow Coco Culhane and 2011 AmeriCorps Fellow L.G. Corder.  They illustrate the potential of our new investment in legal talent to help veterans. 

I’m excited to see the impact that the Veterans Legal Corps and class of 2013 Equal Justice Works Fellows will have on veterans and many other underserved communities. While we look forward to the great work in the coming class year, let’s not forget the people who paved the way in earlier Fellow classes.


Fellows on the Front

After serving in the military for five years, L.G. Corder returned home to West Virginia and began working at the Department of Veterans Affairs. L.G. had been interested in law school while serving in the military, and his interest was reignited after returning home from his last deployment. While he and his sister handled all of his late father’s legal affairs and estate after his death, L.G. was baffled at just how little help was available to seniors and families dealing with such issues. He knew that going to law school was the best next step. “Knowledge and the ability to apply it properly make for an effective combination when trying to guarantee someone’s rights, benefits, and protections,” he said. “Law school provides that skill set.”

Now L.G. is an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Legal Aid of West Virginia, and has found a way to reconnect with local veteran communities and continue serving through his legal expertise. Through his Fellowship, L.G. has also found a new community in AmeriCorps and Equal Justice Works. “I love knowing there are people in our extended legal community that are just as passionate about who they serve as I am,” he said. “There’s a sense of belonging when you think that someone else out there is facing the same challenges as you, the same sad stories as you, and yet is standing up on behalf of someone who might otherwise fail on their own. The Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps communities are large, but they are accessible.  I’m comforted knowing that even if I’m not often reaching out, someone will be there if I do.”

A recent TIME Magazine article highlighted the importance of public service in helping returning veterans adjust to civilian life. Organizations like The Mission Continues have recently been established to help give returning veterans a continued sense of purpose after they leave the military. L.G. believes in the importance of public service, and said in a recent blog post that “public service can absolutely give those that served a renewed sense of purpose and belonging – improving and perhaps even saving many lives.” AmeriCorps has been an avenue for 17,000 veterans to serve their communities upon returning home, and L.G. is proud to be one of them. “I’ve just renewed the Fellowship for a second year, and I’m looking forward to continuing my service,” he said.  “Wherever I serve or work next, I feel like this Fellowship is really broadening my work and life experience, and I plan on carrying the benefits of those experiences forward with me.”



Fellows on the Front

In the beginning of her second year of law school, Coco Culhane learned about Veterans for Common Sense v. Peake, the case in which veterans sued the VA over the lack of mental health care provided for soldiers.  Stunned to learn that there are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans, Coco was compelled to find out how she could use her legal education to help. She researched internship opportunities at places that provided legal services to veterans. Not one such organization existed.

Coco remembered what she knew about Equal Justice Works and its fellowship program. “Equal Justice Works was known as the fellowship for supporting innovative ideas,” Coco said.  She developed her project proposal with the Urban Justice Center with the purpose of providing civil legal services to low-income veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse problems, and other mental health issues. For Coco, being selected as an Equal Justice Works Fellow opened the door to meeting a need that did not exist in the New York City area.

“I put together an idea that could be achieved on a small scale by one person. But in reality the work is endless, and we’ve grown into a staff of five. Now I’m a director of the Veteran Advocacy Project (VAP) at the Urban Justice Center, and this project is my fellowship proposal,” she said.  

In the last few years, Coco has noticed an increase in services for veterans, specifically from legal service providers who now recognize the unique needs of this population. The VAP partners with many of these organizations so that together they can provide assistance in many more areas of law, and not duplicate existing efforts.

VAP collaborates with the City Bar Justice Center and Legal Services NYC to ensure clients get the help they need in areas VAP does not address. In return, partners know that VAP specializes in working with veterans who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury or other individuals who need additional care and attention as they navigate the legal system.

Coco worked with one such Iraq War veteran who was just starting to recognize that he had PTSD and needed to take care of himself. She helped him avoid eviction from his apartment. In addition to his thanks, he gave her a “challenge coin” from his unit.

“It was a humbling moment,” Coco said. “Having heard the things he’d been though in war, the legal papers I threw together for him seemed so insignificant. But I know what that coin meant to him, and the gesture of sharing something that personal with me, a civilian, was incredibly moving.”

Coco’s passion for helping veterans has only grown through her experience with VAP. “It’s true what everyone says: ‘Whatever you pursue, it has to be something you’re passionate about, or you’ll get worn out very fast.’”


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

The Fix Is In – Or So They Say

The Story on Student Loans

In June, we talked about how Congress was scrambling to find a fix before the interest rates on subsidized Federal Direct loans for undergraduates doubled on July 1. Not surprisingly, that date passed before Congress finally came up with a retroactive fix.  The fix (also known as the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013) is in, but this is not a good deal for students in the long run.

The Act moves student loan interest rates to a new market-based fixed rate. That rate is determined each academic year by adding the 10-year Treasury rate to a set amount that varies depending on the type of student loan. For example, interest rates for Direct Unsubsidized Loans for graduate and professional students are now calculated by adding 3.6 percentage points to the ten-year Treasury note. PLUS Loans are the ten-year Treasury note, in addition to 4.6 percentage points.

By itself, this is not so bad. When interest rates are low, as they are now, students will by and large benefit. This academic year, for example, graduate students will pay 5.41 percent for Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and 6.41 percent for PLUS Loans, both of which are lower than current rates.

Unfortunately, the Certainty Act combines this market rate with new – and much higher – interest rate caps. The maximum rate for Direct Unsubsidized Loans for graduate and professional students is now 9.5 percent, and the rate for PLUS Loans is a whopping 10.5 percent. Those are much higher than the previous rates of 6.8 percent and 7.9 percent respectively. When interest rates go up – and they will in the near future – students will suffer under these much higher rates.

The end result is that Congress has simply kicked the can down the road. The Act offers a moderate amount of help to current students at the expense of future ones. And it does not address the huge profit – estimated to be almost $174 billion by 2023 – the federal government is making at the expense of students. That’s too bad, as this was a golden opportunity to mandate that interest rates be set to ensure the student loan program break even. Instead, the federal government will continue making massive profits off of students for the foreseeable future.