Veterans are many things-loyal, brave and patriotic to name a few. But they're also human, and they need help now and then. Thanks to "WarriorConnect," they were able to get that help in one convenient location.
Designed to break through the bureaucratic barriers that often frustrate veterans and their families, "WarriorConnect" was held on Saturday, May 22, 2010, at William & Mary. The free event was sponsored by William & Mary Law School's Veterans Benefits Clinic and the Department of Veterans Services-Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, and made possible by generous support from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.
More than 50 representatives from a wide range of veteran-friendly organizations were on hand with information, education and services on everything from disability benefits and employment opportunities to medical care and continuing education. Following the resource fair, the Clinic hosted a roundtable discussion with service organization representatives that focused on identifying trends in the current Veterans Affairs disability and medical system, and its interaction or absence thereof with Virginia's support systems for veterans, exploring opportunities for collaborative service provision to veterans.
"It's an excellent event that brings together service organizations for families and veterans who haven't been able to find out what they need," said David Coffield, secretary for the Virginia Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, and himself a paralyzed veteran. "This is especially important for those who are filing for disability or getting information about special adaptive housing."
About 100 people went from table to table to get information and attend presentations. Many left with a smile. A spouse of a disabled combat veteran discovered that her teenage son was eligible for a full scholarship. Another spouse found out that the expensive medical devices her husband requires could be supplied by the VA at no cost. And a WWII veteran's spouse was able to get information to apply for spousal benefits.
WarriorConnect also inspired new collaborations between service organizations that support veterans. "It was amazing to see representatives from respective organizations going from table to table themselves, learning about the other services that exist and discussing potential partnerships. In addition to the individual veterans who attended and received help, there was an energy of collaboration in the room amongst the service providers, the effects of which we'll see long after WarriorConnect," said Patty Roberts, Director of Clinical Programs at William & Mary Law School.
The event's cosponsor, the Veterans Benefits Clinic, opened in January 2009. William & Mary students working under the supervision of Adjunct Law Professors Stacey-Rae Simcox and Mark D. Matthews help veterans with their legal needs while students and faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Psychological Services and Development provide assessment, counseling and referrals to veterans in need of those services.
Simcox and Matthews-a couple who graduated from the William & Mary Law School in 1999 and served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps-founded the clinic after encountering the bureaucracy that goes hand-in-hand with post-military life.
"We realized that if two attorneys were exhausted wading through the paperwork, then the average veteran must be completely overwhelmed," said Simcox. "So, we decided to help, and in the process train law school students how to listen to and care for clients with complex medical and legal issues."
Ashley Ahlbrand, who helped with "WarriorConnect" a week after graduating from the Law School, found her work with the clinic invaluable. "I gained the confidence to be an attorney as I helped real clients navigate the system," she said. "It's the best experience I had in law school."
Local veterans like Victor Hundley are grateful for the help. Calling himself "a real live ongoing claim," he's been a client and volunteer since the clinic's inception. "With me, the students are not looking at a book or dealing just with theory," Hundley said. "They're dealing with someone who has problems, and a part of their course requirement is to fix them."
With a double digit load of active case files and plenty of work as a referral source for hundreds of veterans and their families, the staff find their resources stretched to capacity. "More attorney time in the clinic would mean we could take on more actual client cases and do more extensive outreach," Simcox said. "A full-time administrative assistant would also help us maintain this high level of intensity, but we currently don't have adequate funding for this expansion." Many veterans - some of whom are alumni of the Law School -- have been generous in their giving to support the start of the Clinic, and private fundraising is being actively sought to insure this expansion.
The clinic is preparing a YouTube channel this summer with videos discussing benefits and how to apply for them. The goal is to reach younger veterans and those who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and isolating themselves.
It's tough work, but Simcox wouldn't have it any other way as she teaches, runs the clinic, and seeks funding to expand and hold future events like "WarriorConnect."
"Veterans get the help they deserve and society gets incredibly competent 'citizen-lawyers,' which there aren't enough of," she said. "Our clients know we care-and that means everything to me and my students."
For more information on "WarriorConnect" and how you can support the Veterans Benefits Clinic, please visit the William & Mary Veterans Benefits Clinic web site.
Photo caption: Many members of the W&M community were on hand to welcome veterans and their families to the WarriorConnect event. From left, John Cimino JD '12, Veterans Benefits Clinic - Research Assistant (VBC-RA); Jeff Bozman JD '12, VBC-RA; Jeremy Stout '12, President, Veterans Society of William & Mary; Stacey-Rae Simcox JD '99, VBC Managing Attorney; Patricia Roberts JD '92, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Programs; Lisa Evans, a rising 3L at Regent University Law School and VBC volunteer; Krystle Waldron JD '11, former VBC student and current VBC-RA; and Ashley Ahlbrand JD '10, former VBC student. Absent from photo, Kenneth Shimizu JD '11, VBC Planning Associate, and Rebecca Scheetz, WarriorConnect Publicity Coordinator.