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Protecting the Rights of Our Nation’s Defenders

/ Blog Post

Danica Gonzalves is a 2017 Fellow sponsored by AT&T and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP

Photo of Danica Gonzalves

Firstly, congratulations on the Discharge Upgrade Program being awarded a $1 million four-year grant by the DAV Charitable Trust. This program helps veterans who have a diagnosis or exhibit symptoms of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or other mental health conditions, upgrade their discharge from Other-than-Honorable or undesirable. What was the inspiration behind creating this program?

The Veterans Consortium recognized that veterans with Other-than-Honorable (OTH) discharges are unjustly denied the benefits they were promised and deserve. This type of discharge deprives veterans of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, including physical and mental health treatment; limits their jobs prospects; damages reputations; and destroys self-esteem. Mental health conditions resulting from military service should not preclude veterans from receiving the care, benefits, and respect they deserve. A majority of veterans with an OTH apply for an upcharge on their own and are unsuccessful. Professional legal representation is needed to persuade administrative boards to remedy the injustice.

Understanding the vast need for these services, The Veterans Consortium built out the Discharge Upgrade Program to represent these underserved veterans. We fulfill this need by training and providing pro bono attorneys to assist veterans with their discharge upgrade applications.

With funding for the Discharge Upgrade Program now secured for the next four years, what are your plans for growing the program so that it can serve more veterans in need?

Currently, the Discharge Upgrade Program has provided legal assistance to over 2,000 veterans, including representation in more than 100 cases. My goal is to grow the program by expanding our capacity. I hope we can bring in more team members and provide additional services to veterans. Ideally, we would also train more attorneys across the country.

When you reflect back on all that you have accomplished during your two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship with the Discharge Upgrade Program, what has been the most memorable experience for you?

The most memorable part of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship has been seeing the impact I make in veterans’ lives. I won a case for a female veteran that developed PTSD after suffering severe abuse while in service. She unjustly received an OTH from the military and was not able to access the benefits she needed. Working with her, we submitted a discharge upgrade application and successfully upgraded her discharge to a fully honorable. Now she is eligible for the benefits she needs. Seeing the impact on a veteran’s life after receiving a discharge upgrade is an incredible experience.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned during your time as an Equal Justice Works Fellow? 

The most valuable lesson I learned was understanding my role as an advocate. Representing a client is not solely filing legal documents; it also encompasses supporting the veteran. Many individuals do not feel like others listen to their concerns. A good advocate will listen to their story and needs and determine next steps. Advocates act as a voice for those who feel unheard.  

Photo of Danica Gonzalves at her host organization, The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program

What are three things every lawyer should know about working with veterans?

First, it’s crucial to build trust with the client. The client should be able to rely on you as an advocate. Second, attorneys should recognize that all veterans have had a different experience during service, and we should empathize with their past. Lastly, veterans can be a marginalized population, especially those with mental health conditions, and should be supported during the entire legal process.

What advice would you give to aspiring public interest lawyers who are interested in working in veteran’s rights law?

Veterans are underrepresented in the legal field. Many of them need help obtaining the benefits they deserve. Attorneys play a pivotal role in aiding veterans to receive the care and compensation they were promised. When veterans attempt to represent themselves, the process can be daunting, and they are routinely denied. Attorneys should recognize the importance of assisting these veterans, our nation’s defenders, with their challenges and needs.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Danica’s contributions to protecting veterans’ rights. To learn more about Danica’s project, visit her Fellow profile.

A good advocate will listen to their story and needs and determine next steps. Advocates act as a voice for those who feel unheard.

Danica Gonzalves /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow