Helping Long Island’s Veterans:
The fight doesn’t always end when our heroes come home.
Touro Law students (left to right) Jusun Yook, Christina Forte, Tryan Bryks and Harrison
Corcoran, on hand to provide free legal help and advice to LI vets.
“James” an Iraq combat vet, was facing eviction. His experience during a violent and bloody ambush in which he was nearly killed left him traumatized, anxious, and severely depressed. He had been receiving mental health care from the VA at Northport, but the legalities of his eviction were complicated, to say the least, and moving into a shelter would have been destabilizing. Thanks to the Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic at Touro College, the eviction was postponed and “James” had the time to relocate.
Long Island has a military veteran population of 167,000, more than any other area in New York State. Many of Long Island’s returning veterans are National Guard and reserve members, whose civilian lives have been disrupted by multiple deployments. The range of administrative and legal hurdles these service members face can be daunting, particularly for those with psychological disorders.
Veterans are barred from paying a lawyer to represent them while benefits claims are pending, but a pro bono attorney or a nonprofit can represent them. Touro College Law Center opened a Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic in 2010 to provide legal assistance to veterans and their families. Recognizing the increasing need of returning veterans with mental health disorders for legal assistance, LICF made a $20,000 grant to Touro’s Law Center. This year, approximately 15 second and third year students, along with a supervising attorney, are providing free legal help and advice to Long Island veterans, most of whom have mental illness and are in desperate need of VA benefits.
“Dealing with the bureaucracy at the VA is a difficult task,” said Harrison Corcoran, a law student interning at the clinic. “In order to get any kind of real response, you have to be ready to send multiple e-mails and letters and follow them up with strategically timed phone calls. As difficult as it is for me to get any answers, I can only imagine how hard it must be for some of our mentally ill clients.”
While veterans suffering from mental illness are entitled by law to disability benefits to sustain themselves and their families, it takes an average of more than four years for a veteran to fully adjudicate a claim; and there is no coherent system for prioritizing mental health intake appointments or tracking veterans with risk factors.
The director of the clinic, John A. Gresham, is a professor and attorney specializing in disability rights and mental illness, and has established partnerships with local VA medical centers, advocacy and support groups, bar associations, and the Suffolk County Veterans Court.
“Funding from LICF is actually two-fold. Not only are we helping Long Island veterans with their legal issues, we’re building for the future by educating students on the law relevant to veterans – rare in the U.S. law schools – and exposing students to the satisfaction that comes with this work,” explains Gresham.
“Many military veterans are having to do battle on the home front to get the services they deserve,” said David Okorn, executive director of LICF. “The Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic cuts through the red tape and provides a critical service to our Island’s heroes.”