The Law School's Lewis B. Puller, Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic has enlisted colleges and universities around Virginia to join the new HMVHE consortium to help the state's veterans.
Working diligently to provide Virginia's wounded warriors with benefits they need and so richly deserve, the Lewis B. Puller, Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School has launched a bold new initiative. Helping Military Veterans Through Higher Education (HMVHE) is a consortium that engages other Virginia universities to partner with the Puller Clinic in order to extend its reach across the state.
The first clinic of its kind in the nation, the Puller Clinic helps with both the legal claims for benefits and the psychological and other underlying difficulties experienced by veterans and service members. HMVHE is the logical next step in its development.
"As the Puller Clinic took on more and more cases, we found our clients needed other professionals, not just lawyers and doctors, to be helped," said Patty Roberts, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at William & Mary Law School. "So we decided that partnerships like the one we enjoy with Virginia Commonwealth University would provide a wider range of holistic services."
Fully supporting the clinic's mission, William & Mary President and former Law School Dean Taylor Reveley wrote to colleagues at Virginia's public colleges. The University of Virginia's law and medical schools were quick to sign on, as were James Madison University, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Lynchburg College, Old Dominion University, Radford University, Shenandoah University, and the Virginia Community College System.
The consortium couldn't form at a better time. Since the Puller Clinic was launched in 2008, more and more veterans have come to rely on its services. And with claims often taking up to two years to resolve, the clinic's legal and psychological professionals and their students can spend as much as 400 pro bono hours working on a single case.
"If it takes 400 hours per file, we really do need the allied forces of the consortium," Roberts said. "At the moment, we're doing 40 cases, and we just don't have enough manpower."
According to Stacey-Rae Simcox, Managing Attorney of the clinic and its cofounder, the national system designed to help veterans is overstressed, and only 16,000 people are on hand to help more than 24 million veterans across the country. In Virginia, the average claim can take up to 18 months; a case that is appealed can take two to three years.
A lot of focus nationally is on getting veterans back to work, but holistic treatment from a broader cross-disciplinary approach is necessary to bring them to that stage.
"We're the step before that -- put them on the right track to get them back to work," said Simcox. "They can't train for work if they're suffering from injuries."
Indeed, the clinic's assistance in proper diagnosis and treatment helped one Vietnam veteran finally receive compensation after years of suffering from severe service-related back and hip problems. Since then, he has become fully employed.
Another veteran, homeless and wrongly diagnosed by the Veterans Administration (VA) with bipolar disorder, was properly diagnosed with dementia induced by an in-service traumatic brain injury. Deemed 100 percent disabled, he has received back pay and a more appropriate level of monthly compensation.
Another veteran, from WWII, fought for 40 years to get his benefits. Working with staff and dedicated students at William & Mary, he finally achieved success, and is more than happy to help get the word out about HMVHE's mission.
Providing indispensable service to the clinic are law students at William & Mary. Each semester, 12 to 16 law students work individually with clients under the supervision of the clinic's staff. Not only do they help people in need, but they get real-world experience in their professional education as future citizen-lawyers. Dr. Leticia Flores and her students at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Psychological Services and Development work in tandem with the clinic to provide assessment, counseling, and referrals to veterans in need of those services.
One third-year law student, Ryen Rasmus, learned about Simcox's work and volunteered with the clinic. He's currently helping two clients on a number of projects, some related to the VA, some to ancillary agencies.
"I help reintegrate veterans into society," Rasmus says. "My job is to make sure they get care to which they're entitled. Finding opportunities for them is a great part of my work."
Rasmus finds that many veterans need to have a very complex, very technical, system broken down for them to reach their goals. It is difficult work with long hours, but he is excited about the opportunities that HMVHE brings.
"I come at the work from one perspective, but the staff of VCU's psychology clinic and U.Va.'s medical school understand what kind of language would be most effective in helping us advocate on behalf of our clients," he said. "The interesting relationships that come from the consortium move clients through the system more quickly and produce better results for them."
Simcox is proud not only of the students who work with her, but also of the close relationships they forge with their veteran clients. She cites several examples of clients keeping in touch with law students after they graduated to see how their bar exams went and how their new careers are going.
That sense of good will and sharing is spreading across the consortium. Some schools want to start their own clinics. The current challenge is to keep the clinic going and to build the consortium, with the ultimate goal that HMVHE will become its own entity apart from the Puller Clinic.
Partnerships also come from within William & Mary.
"The amazing thing is the response from professionals and students in areas beyond law and medicine," said Simcox. "The Mason School of Business at William & Mary, for instance, came to us and said 'this is how we can help.'"
In addition, law firms such as McGuireWoods and Hunton & Williams, as well as the Virginia Bar Association, are donating time, talent, and fundraising abilities to the cause.
Development of HMVHE has been made possible by a recent grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, which also provided financial support to start the clinic. A dedicated group of individual donors, including Law School alumni, also provided financial support.
Simcox looks forward to taking some new, big steps, which include inviting private colleges to join HMVHE. Serving as the intake facility, the Puller Clinic will engage other members of HMVHE for their expertise on cases as appropriate, further expanding the holistic nature of the assistance provided for in service-related disability claims for veterans and service members.
For their part, HMVHE members will start an online clearinghouse of information that includes instructions and advice for pursuing benefit claims, and additional public and private resources.
The Consortium will also serve as a model for schools in other states to create similar partnerships. An online communications platform will share best practices, and workshops and presentations are planned to provide guidance and training to interested institutions. Proposed solutions to the systemic problems in the claims process will also be shared.
"Above all, with HMVHE we hope to stop worrying about boundaries and focusing on collaborations and partnerships," Roberts said. "Helping veterans isn't something only William & Mary should be doing -- that's why we're calling in the allied forces, so that everyone who wants a seat at the table has one."
And that suits Ryen Rasmus just fine. After he graduates next May and spends a year clerking for the Norfolk Circuit Court, he looks forward to continuing to help veterans in any way possible.
"If anyone deserves free help, it's people who serve our country and who come back with legal, medical, or any number of problems," he said.