Gift To Law School Will Help Veterans, Give Widow Some Peace

It was a triumph over a tragedy both personal and national.
In a heartwarming story out of Columbus, Ohio, the widow of a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq six years ago found a way to honor his memory and help others.
Jenna Grassbaugh, herself a veteran, made a donation to Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, where she is a second-year student.
“Widowed at 22, Jenna Grassbaugh struggled through her grief, trying to find a balance between holding on and moving on,” according to a recent story in The Columbus Dispatch. “Nearly six years later, she thinks she has found a fitting way to move forward: The second-year law student at Ohio State University has donated $250,000, half of her husband’s life-insurance benefit, to the Moritz College of Law to fund an effort to help veterans.”

The Dedication Wall inside the main lobby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The donation will be the initial funding for the Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project, through which law students, aided by professional lawyers, will provide legal assistance to veterans returning from deployment. Ohio State University officials say they intend to raise a matching $250,000 to bring the total for the project to $500,000.
“When I thought about something that Jon would be proud of, this was it,” Jenna Grassbaugh, now 28, told the newspaper. “It was almost like a no-brainer.
“This can make a difference for a lot of people, and that is the best way to perpetuate his legacy.”
“She’s awe-inspiring,” the paper quoted law school Dean Alan Michaels as saying. “It makes you want this (project) to be fantastic and to really make the difference that we’re hoping it will.”
The $500,000, if the full amount were to be obtained, would pay for more than 2,000 hours of legal help in the 2013-14 academic year.
“The idea is for students to work under the supervision of lawyers,” The Dispatch story stated.
Col. Duncan Aukland, the judge advocate for the Ohio National Guard, who helped the widow in creating the project said that many returning veterans can’t afford quality legal assistance and often aren’t aware of all their rights.
“We have unmet needs,” he told the newspaper. “Certainly, people can go to the private sector and pay an attorney, but, on the other hand, there are people who have legitimate problems that are in some way related to their military services that deserve our help, and there aren’t enough resources currently existing to get them there.”
“It’s taken six years for me to say out loud, but I think I’ve finally been able to achieve a level of happiness and peace,” Jenna Grassbaugh said. “And I’m proud of that.”

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Among Needs Of Homeless Veterans: Legal Assistance

They came home, but they have no home.
Although homelessness is a sad thing in any segment of the population, from children to families to people with mental health problems, it is especially sad to see it among military veterans, and depressingly prevalent among returning soldiers, sailors and Marines.

Fortunately, the Veterans Administration, not always the most responsive agency in the federal government, has recognized this as an issue and has taken steps to help homeless veterans.
While shelter is obviously their biggest unmet need, many among the legions of homeless former warriors also need legal assistance.
Again, the VA has stepped up to the plate on this.
The Department of Veteran Affairs in 2011 issued a directive designed to provide adequate legal referrals to veterans who are homeless.
“The President and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs have established a goal of ending homelessness among Veterans by 2015,” the background on the director states. “Veterans’ lack of access to legal representation for outstanding warrants or fines, as well as for child support and other legal matters, contributes significantly to their risk of becoming homeless.
“In response to these unmet needs, several VHA facilities have been referring homeless veterans to local legal service providers or referral services, such as those operated by the state or local bar associations. A task force of homeless programs staff from the VHA and the Office of Policy and Planning, as well as the Office of the General Counsel, has recommended that the Department of Veterans Affairs establish nationwide legal referral policies to ensure that referrals are being made in a consistent manner.”
A key to this whole policy, and to the overall and lofty goal of ending homelessness among former service men and women is that it’s not just left out there as words on paper.
“The National Coordinator, Veterans Justice Outreach, is responsible for the contents of this directive,” the document states.
In other words, someone is made responsible for seeing that actions are actually taken.

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Investment Scams Increasingly Target Veterans

There is no free lunch.
“There are thousands of ‘free lunch’ seminars that attract large audiences,” Elliot Raphaelson of Tribune Media Services wrote in a story published Dec. 19. “In 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority scrutinized 110 securities firms that presented free lunch seminars. Their report found that 100 percent of them were sales presentations, despite the fact that the majority were advertised as ‘educational.’ The report also indicated that 50 percent of these meetings featured misleading advertising; 23 percent involved possibly unsuitable recommendations; and 13 percent appeared to be fraudulent. If you attend a free lunch seminar, and the products offered seems too good to be true, they probably are. For years, AARP has warned about ‘veterans’ advocates’ who in fact are unscrupulous investment advisers interested only in generating commissions for themselves.

“According to AARP, scams targeting veterans are increasing across the country.”
“At community centers, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, their spiel to older veterans goes something like this: We can get you instant eligibility for additional benefits through a quick overhaul of your investments,” Sid Kirchheimer wrote in October 2010 AARP Bulletin. “These self-described ‘veterans advocates’ are in fact unscrupulous investment advisers. The usual pitch involves getting a veteran to transfer retirement assets into an irrevocable trust so that the family appears to be impoverished. This helps it meet eligibility requirements for a VA pension and related programs such as Aid and Attendance, which pays an additional benefit to veterans who need assistance with everyday living.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with irrevocable trusts for older veterans; they can and do work quite well. The problem is with the annuities unscrupulous financial planners can sell with them.
The wisest course in setting up a trust is to consult with a VA-accredited elder law attorney.
Investment dodges of any kind are disgraceful, but those aimed at this segment of the population are all the more so.
“Veteran scams, targeting a group of people who provide such a valuable and selfless service to their country, have to be one of the most despicable crimes,” according to the website scambusters. “Not only do the crooks have our vets in their sights but they also abuse their reputation by pulling off con tricks in their names. They trade on other people’s patriotism and gratitude to make money that really belongs in the pockets of vets.”

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Veterans With Disabilities Have Several Legal Protections

Serving one’s country sometimes comes at a heavy price.

“In recent years, the percentage of veterans who report having service-connected disabilities, i.e., disabilities that were incurred in, or aggravated during, military service, has risen,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. “About 25 percent of recent veterans report having a service-connected disability, as compared to about 13 percent of all veterans. Common injuries experienced by veterans include missing limbs, spinal cord injuries, burns, post traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss, traumatic brain injuries, and other impairments.”
Having suffered these injuries while on military duties, veterans don’t have to suffer discrimination in the workplace as they return to civilian life.
“There are several federal laws that provide important protections for veterans with disabilities who are looking for jobs or are already in the workplace,” another EEOC article states.
One of these is the strictly civilian Americans with Disabilities Act while another, more significant one is the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
“USERRA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants for employment on the basis of their military status or military obligations,” according to the EEOC site. “It also protects the reemployment rights of individuals who leave their civilian jobs, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to serve in the uniformed services, including the U.S. Reserve forces and state, District of Columbia, and territory (e.g., Guam) National Guards. Both USERRA and the ADA require employers to make certain adjustments for veterans with disabilities called ‘reasonable accommodations.’ However, USERRA requires employers to go further than the ADA by making reasonable efforts to assist a veteran who is returning to employment to become qualified for a job whether or not the veteran has a service-connected disability. This could include providing training or retraining for the position.”
“The ADA uses different standards than the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs in determining disability status,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.
Taken together, however, these two laws should ensure that people who made sacrifices far from home don’t continue to make sacrifices.

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Veterans Administration, Finally, Takes Measure To Cut Red Tape

The reaction was pretty universal: What took so long?
The recent announcement from the Department of Veterans Affairs that a bit of
burdensome annual paper work would be eliminated was greeted with relief.

Eligibility Verification Reports will no longer have to be filled out each year.
“VA will implement a new process for confirming eligibility for benefits, and staff that had been responsible for processing the old form will instead focus on eliminating the compensation claims backlog,” according to the announcement. “Historically, beneficiaries have been required to complete an EVR each year to ensure their pension benefits continued. Under the new initiative, VA will work with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration to verify continued eligibility for pension benefits.”
“By working together, we have cut red tape for veterans and will help ensure these brave men and women get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.
“ ’bout time! I hated filling them out every year!” was one response on the Facebook page of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It is about time,” was another’s reaction. “I get tired of having to do that crap every year and it was old just to take the time to fill all the crap out. I made copies of it just to fill it out each year with the same info. Unless your address changes, there is no point in doing it over.”
“Having already instituted an expedited process that enables wounded warriors to quickly access Social Security disability benefits, we are proud to work with our federal partners on an automated process that will make it much easier for qualified Veterans to maintain their VA benefits from year to year,” Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, was quoted as saying in the VA announcement.
“The IRS is taking new steps to provide critical data to help speed the benefits process for the nation’s Veterans and Veterans Affairs,” offered Beth Tucker, IRS Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support. “The IRS is pleased to be part of a partnership with VA and SSA that will provide needed data quickly and effectively to move this effort forward.”
Those currently receiving VA pension benefits will be getting a letter from VA explaining these changes and providing instructions on how to continue to submit their unreimbursed medical expenses, the announcement added.
More information about VA pension benefits is available at http://www.benefits.va.gov/pension and other VA benefit programs on the joint Department of Defense—VA web portal eBenefits at www.ebenefits.va.gov.

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Trademarking Could Prevent Some GI Bill Scams

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which has come to be known as the GI Bill, was intended to offer a heartfelt thanks to the man and women who fought for freedom in World War II by funding their higher education.

All too often, it has been used to dupe the very people it was intended to help.
At last, though, some measure of protection has been afforded to veterans from scam artists. The GI Bill is now a registered trademark.
“For most of its existence the popular government program did just fine without a trademark,” according to a posting on the website Law.com. “But repeated complaints about fraudulent marketing and recruiting practices aimed at military families eligible for federal education loans under the GI Bill prompted the government to seek a trademark for the GI Bill from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“Some intellectual property lawyers have argued that trademarking a government program as well established as the GI Bill is an inappropriate use of the law. Trademarks are generally used to identify and distinguish goods and services, they say, and are for the exclusive commercial use of their owners. The GI Bill is technically a law, and it isn’t selling anything. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in April directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the Department of Education to take measures to ‘stop deceptive and misleading’ promotional efforts that target beneficiaries of the GI Bill.”
“Trademarking ‘GI Bill’ is a great step forward in continuing our mission to better serve this nation’s service members, veterans and their families,” Allison Hickey, Department of Veterans Affairs undersecretary for benefits, was quoted as telling FederalNewsRadio.com.
“We want to ensure the right balance with these new guidelines so that our stakeholders can still promote GI Bill and we can prohibit others from using it fraudulently,” the website quoted Curtis Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, as saying.

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It’s Time To Get Veterans Off The ‘Hamster Wheel’

They say that justice delayed is justice denied.
The same holds true for the benefits the men and women who served in the military are owed by this country for the sacrifices they made. The unconsciable backlog for the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with disability claims and compensation amounts to denying those supposed guaranteed benefits.

Honoring Veterans (Photo credit: Fort Rucker)
As a recent editorial in The New York Times President Barack Obama vowed in his Veterans Day address:
“No veteran should have to wait months or years for the benefits that you’ve earned, so we will continue to attack the claims backlog. We won’t let up. We will not let up.”
“He had better not let up, given that the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the long slog through its own paperwork, is in some ways marching backward,” the editorial stated. “Through July of this year, 66 percent of claims for disability compensation and pensions were still pending more than 125 days after being filed, missing the department’s own timeliness goals. That is up from 60 percent in 2011.
“There is a separate quagmire for veterans who appeal a rejected claim, the average time between the filing of an appeal and its resolution is nearly two and a half years. If a veteran fights a losing appeal in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, that is another journey of months or years. The court might send a case back for more review, and more delay. Veterans’ advocates call that the ‘hamster wheel.’ ”
The Nov. 23 editorial followed fast on the heels of a Sept. 27 story in The Times that tied names and faces to the woeful statistics regarding how long men and women are forced to wait to even find out if their claims for benefits will be granted, let alone the lengthy delay in appealing any denials.
“For hundreds of thousands of veterans, the result has been long waits for decisions, mishandled documents, confusing communications and infuriating mistakes in their claims,” the story stated.
The New York Times is not alone in reporting on this problem, which is only growing worse.
“The average wait time for wounded veterans to see their disability-compensation claims completed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has now grown to 262 days, or nearly nine months, according to a federal website and three watchdog groups,
a Dec. 4 NBC News story stated
.
“The only answers to this vexing situation seem to be more staffing, better training and technology,” Nov. 23 editorial stated. “More immediately, the veterans’ agency needs to be realistic in communicating about the delays, so veterans can get on with their lives while they wait.”

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Benefits for Veterans Ought to be Automatic

It practically amounts to denying veterans of the benefits they deserve.

Veteran (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)
“More than half of America’s veterans say they have little or no understanding of the benefits due them, despite efforts over recent years to match returning soldiers with the help and services they need,” according to a recent story by Chris Adams of McClatchy Newspapers.
While this failure to connect veterans with what this country owes them is somewhat less when it comes to younger soldiers, sailors and Marines, it is a sad commentary that the system has become too arcane for most to figure out.
“In 2011, the Government Accountability Office pointed to the complexity of the VA’s education programs as a possible factor that kept more veterans from participating,” the story states. “The GAO said that although outreach efforts were widespread, ‘little is known about the effectiveness’ of those efforts, since the VA didn’t have a way to measure its outreach performance. Some veterans told the GAO they were forced to wait too long or had to call several times to get information from the VA’s hotlines; a high percentage of the attempted calls met a busy signal. Further, some veterans and their advocates told the GAO that briefings for separating service members were not effective and often provided too much information to readily digest.”
One simple step could help provide all veterans with one simple basic necessity, the health care insurance the law says they would have. That step would be automatic enrollment upon discharge, but it’s not one that has so far been taken.
“Veterans advocates and some lawmakers have pushed to automatically enroll veterans in the VA health care system, which could fill in the gap for some of the veterans not now covered by the VA or the private market,” according to a separate story by Adams.
There are times when veterans need the assistance of an attorney to maneuver through the tangled skein of benefits, but this should only come after they are provided, free of charge and without having to make an application, the ones they most definitely deserve.

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Veterans Often ‘Need an Attorney for This Journey’

The men and women who fought for their country shouldn’t have to fight for what their country owes them.
The sad fact is, though, that all too often they do. The laws and regulations governing the benefits for veterans have become so byzantine that it’s a road few want to travel alone. As singer-songwriter Tom Waits once put it, “You’ll need an attorney for this journey.”
“As early as the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government has been committed to providing pension and disability benefits to those who have served in the armed services,” according to the National Association of Veterans’ Advocates Inc. “The concept of a veterans’ administration, or what is now know as the Department of Veterans Affairs, did not become a reality until after World War I. The statutory scheme created by Congress was intended to be non-adversarial, pro-claimant and veteran friendly.
“Unfortunately, the adjudication of veterans’ claims for benefits has evolved into a bureaucratic abyss-like process that is inconsistent with the mandates of Congress. Oftentimes, veterans now face an aggressive and adversarial appeals process. As a consequence, veterans are finding it necessary to enlist veterans’ law practitioners to represent them in their appeals for VA benefits.”
“Individuals whose legal needs cannot be met by a military legal assistance attorney or who are not eligible for a military legal assistance attorney should consider contacting a civilian attorney,” authors Janelle Hill, Cheryl Lawhorne and Don Philpott state in their 2012 book, “The Wounded Warrior Handbook: A Resource Guide for Returning Veterans” (Government Institutes, an imprint of The Scarecrow Press Inc.)
“You should seek the advice of an attorney to navigate the sometimes complicated procedures and systems that provide benefits for veterans,” suggests a publication of the Texas Young Lawyers Association and Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans. “An attorney can also assist with various legal issues, including disputes related to housing, such as eviction suits, as well as applications for benefits related to public health, family members,  and education.”
While there used to be considerable roadblocks to using a private attorney when dealing with the VA, those have been loosened in recent years, making it not only easier but in many instances advisable to seek counsel outside of government circles.
“After June 20, 2007, disabled veterans are able to hire an attorney much earlier in the VA disability process,” states the National Veterans Organization website. “This new law will change the way veteran’s disability cases are handled and by whom. It is my belief that this is one of the most important disability laws passed in recent history.”

Specialized Courts for Veterans Can Help Reclaim Lives

Justice may be blind, but that doesn’t mean the people who administer courts can’t see the distinctions that exist between those who find themselves in legal difficulties.
In the past two decades or so, specialized courts have been created to deal with drug offenders, those with mental illness and even prostitutes. After all, most of the people in those groups are more victims than offenders.
The same approach to diverting men and women in specific groups from punishment and into treatment has more recently been brought to bear on veterans accused of breaking the law.
It’s a welcome development, one that, with luck, will spread quickly across the country. In fact, it already has.
“The first veterans’ court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008,” according to the website of the National Center for State Courts. “The veterans’ court model is based on drug treatment and/or mental health treatment courts. Substance abuse or mental health treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration. Typically, veteran mentors assist with the programs. An important issue that has to be addressed is the eligibility for veterans’ courts in terms of whether charges involving felonies or crimes of violence will be allowed. The inclusion of offenders charged with inter-family violence is also of grave concern to policy makers.
“Robert Russell, a judge in Buffalo, New York, after noticing an increasing number of veterans on his docket, in 2008 created the first court specialised and adapted to meet the needs of veterans,” a June 2011 article in The Economist states. “Every Tuesday, Mr Russell presides over ‘Veterans Treatment Court,’ a hybrid of drug and mental-health courts. It aims to divert people from the traditional criminal system. It provides veterans suffering from substance abuse, alcoholism and mental-health issues, with treatment, support, training and housing.
“Each veteran is assigned a mentor, also a veteran from the same service, who acts as a coach and, if need be, an ‘ass-kicker.’ If the veterans follow the program’s regimen, which involves regular court appearances, mandatory drug treatment and testing, they could see their charges reduced or dismissed and they could stay out of jail.”
“When they left for war, the law enforcement community cheered them. And when they returned, we celebrated their return as heroes,” Penny Wilson, Ph.D., founder of Hope4Heroes, a nonprofit serving veterans, was quoted as saying on the website of the Division of Addictive Services, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. “It is tragic that these young men and women are now becoming entangled in the criminal justice system, especially because prior to combat, 95 percent of those being arrested had never been involved with criminal justice. Law enforcement officials are having to deal with returning combat veterans who were never in trouble before the war.”
A July 9, 2012, story in The Roanoke Times by Laurence Hammack focuses on a successful diversion program at the VA Medical Center in Salem:
“The program, which began in April 2011, provides an array of treatment services to veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges, misdemeanors, mostly, in the federal courts of Western Virginia. Modeled after drug courts, Veterans Treatment Court addresses the underlying cause of criminal activity, whether it’s substance abuse, mental illness or a combination of the two, To do that, court officials must drop their normal adversarial roles. Prosecutors don’t prosecute. Defense lawyers stop defending. The judge withholds judgment.
“For at least six months, the sole focus is on treatment and recovery.
“And when the system works, the defendant walks away with no criminal conviction, a better veteran for the experience.”