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Veterans Advocacy as “thank you for your service”

By E. Alex Espinoza, Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps, Veterans Legal Corps - Legal Fellow, U.S. Army Reserve

Each Veteran’s Day, our nation pauses to thank our 19.6 million living veterans. As an Iraq War veteran, I can attest to the awkwardness of responding to “thank you for your service.” At best, veterans don’t know how to respond. A response of “you’re welcome” seems too self-serving. At worst, “thank you for your service” is considered only lip service; a required response similar to “gesundheit” or “bless you” after a sneeze.

Our veterans have stood up to serve when no one else could or dared to; they faced danger and privation in our name, and received very little in comparison. In so doing, these individuals embodied America and her values.  As a US Army Officer, I have unfortunately witnessed the next greatest generation—the less than 1% who have served after 9/11—struggle most with life after service overseas. Inability to resolve legal issues is a major cause of struggle after service.

In the military, we live by the code of never leaving a fallen comrade. Outside the military, caring for our fallen is not limited to the battlefield or to military service; any veteran who fails to transition to post-service life is left behind. Of our post-9/11 veterans, a shocking 44% claim a difficult reentry into society, compared with 27% of all veterans.   

Recognizing this need, Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps partnered to create a Veteran’s Legal Corps (VLC) in 2013. The VLC presently consists of forty recent graduates and seasoned practitioners, who provide assistance to indigent Veterans and income eligible military families at existing civil legal aid organizations nationwide.

Here in Illinois, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation’s Champaign Office is in its second year of hosting two Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Corps fellows—myself, first-year fellow Alex Espinoza, and second-year fellow Emily Vock.  

These fellows’ sole mission is to provide assistance to indigent Veterans and income eligible military families on issues including landlord-tenant law, home foreclosures, health and disability benefits, family law matters, consumer and medical debt, drivers’ license reinstatement, and sealing or expungement of criminal records—primary obstacles to veteran readjustment to the civilian workforce.

I am extremely privileged and grateful to have somehow made it home from Iraq, attend law school, and have children. Several friends were not as fortunate. I strive to honor these fallen comrades and others like them here at home through continued public service.  

Towards this end, in its short tenure, the Illinois VLC project has closed over 200 cases and helped secure over $135,000 in benefits for veterans in its fifteen county service area.  Due to limited time and resources, other veterans are unfortunately turned away.  Private practitioners must help pick up the slack.  Honoring and thanking these individuals who ensure the existence of our legal system is every legal practitioner’s responsibility.  The best way for our profession to tell veterans “thank you for your service” is by helping to meet this legal need: by volunteering pro bono services, giving to veteran legal service organizations, or anything beyond a mere “thank you.”

Posted on December 2, 2014 by Chris Bonjean

Member Comments (1)

What a terrific program. The John Marshall Law School Veterans' Legal Services Clinic in Chicago offers similar pro bono services to both vets and their families. Students work with volunteer attorneys to provide much needed legal assistance and counsel to these deserving military personnel.