Scholars and judges from across the United States attended a three-day conference at the University of Baltimore School of Law devoted to the situation of veterans, particularly those whose rocky return to civilian life lands them in trouble with the law.
The March 15-17 conference, titled “Veterans’ Needs: The Current State of Veterans in Our Courts,” examined the cultural, legal and clinical situations of U.S. service members who return from war to a society — and, often, family — that has little understanding of what they’ve been through.
Panelists discussed the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, domestic violence, homelessness and legal difficulties among veterans, many of whom were deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Make no mistake, our country is watching how we treat our returning veterans,” said Professor Hugh McClean (above, far left), director of UB’s Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
McClean, an attorney who served in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps from 2003 to 2014, cited a government survey that found more than 50,000 U.S. veterans are homeless. In Baltimore, he said, about 300 veterans are on the streets each night.
He also pointed to a 2012 Veterans Administration study that found 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves every day – a casualty figure that, added up, outstrips all American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
“Fifty-seven percent of post-9/11 veterans seen by the Veterans Administration are diagnosed with a mental disorder,” McClean said in a panel discussion that he presented March 16 with three clinic students.
The students (shown left to right) – 2L Kris Vallecillo, 3L David Shafer and 3L Kellye Beathea – told the audience, which included 65 judges, about their clinic experiences helping veterans and working to enact systemic reforms to smooth soldiers’ return to civilian life.
Clinic students handle diverse civil and veterans’ benefits matters.
Shafer, who served six years in the Marines and completed tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke of a “decoupling” between veterans and the general public.
“We have a rising generation of citizens who are ignorant to the hardships of war, to the troubles of military families, to the stress and strain of multiple deployments, to homelessness, addiction and suicide,” Shafer said, adding that more Marines under his command died at their own hand than were killed in action.
Calling soldiers’ return to society “a large leap,” Shafer said that he is inspired to help veterans make the transition – and that his experience with them has led him to reexamine his career path.
“I can advocate as a means for social change,” said Shafer, who said he entered law school planning to become a corporate attorney. “I have those means.”
Vallecillo said he particularly enjoyed the task of taming “the bureaucratic monster” that veterans must wrestle with once they enter the legal system.
“You take your time, you look at the facts,” he said. “It’s really rewarding work for a law student to do.”
Beathea, who said she had no experience with the military before starting in the clinic, said she was now considering a career helping veterans.
“The reason why I came to law school in the first place is to help people,” she said, citing a client who, traumatized by his service and return to the U.S., went from a professional career to an entry-level job.
“It struck at me,” she said. “You are compelled to help people like that.”