Wills (and a lot more) for Warriors

Legal Aid Society expands its assistance to low-income veterans

Nov 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm

As temperatures drop across the state and fall sloppily dissolves into winter, Roy Denny will be more concerned than usual about his work. Stable housing is an issue for some of his current — and many of his potential — clients. He doesn’t want any of them to end up on the streets without a roof over their head. Nobody deserves that, but his clients disproportionately come with special circumstances that often exacerbate smaller issues.

They’re veterans.

Denny is the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at the Legal Aid Society. He was hired just over a year ago to expand Legal Aid’s programs and services for Kentucky’s low-income veteran population. More than 340,000 veterans currently live in the state; roughly two-thirds of them served during wartime.

Often, when people think of the needs of veterans, the focus is on health-care issues and the bureaucratic hurdles found in the Department for Veterans Affairs. Yet, the needs of the collective community are much broader and often only tangentially related to their service. That’s why, four years ago, at the suggestion of a veteran on its board of directors, Legal Aid expanded its reach to the veteran community. At the time, it was estimated that one-third of the state’s veterans lacked access to adequate legal assistance.

Through its Kentucky Corps of Advocates for Veterans, Legal Aid provides direct guidance and legal services on the same broad range of issues, including expunging criminal records, filing for bankruptcy, going through a divorce, setting up equitable child support or dealing with consumer lawsuits. Sometimes the work is as simple as connecting a veteran with a housing subsidy program he didn’t realize he qualified for or explaining to creditors what protections the Civil Relief Act provides service members during deployments. Sometimes it’s messier — marriages ripped apart from the strain of long periods of time with limited contact.

“The impact of being in combat overseas or just being in the military is something we (civilians) don’t understand,” says Denny. “Often, when they come back, coping becomes first priority. That means putting off things others might more quickly address.”

Add post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, alcoholism or a host of issues that disproportionately affect veterans, and a bad situation becomes worse.

That’s why organizations like the National Association of American Veterans push for holistic approaches to helping — and why partnership between nonprofits, agencies and other resources are proving essential to addressing the intertwining needs of the community. It’s not often that low-income people, veteran or otherwise, have only one specific issue affecting their lives.

Denny works with the Jefferson County Veterans Treatment Court, which accepts the misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases of veterans suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues and directs individuals toward treatment options rather than incarceration. The court was the first of its kind in Kentucky, funded through a three-year $350,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Legal Aid has directly assisted 126 veterans on a variety of legal issues in the past year. KCAV as a whole has helped more than 1,000 since it began.

“We’re very lucky to have the amount of resources we do,” says Denny. “We’ve been a leader in helping veterans.”

Wills for Warriors is Legal Aid’s most recent outreach effort. Through it, low-income veterans can obtain free life-planning documents such as wills, health-care surrogates, powers of attorney and living wills.

The program launched last June at the Kentucky Bar Association’s annual conference. The response from lawyers across the state willing to work pro bono for the cause was overwhelming — far exceeding the dozen or so veterans who attended their on-site clinic that day. Consider it one of those rare good problems to have.

Denny and Kyle Watson, a program coordinator at Legal Aid, want to capitalize on that availability and serve even more veterans, but outreach can be difficult. Many of their clients come from places like the St. John Center for Homeless Men, where, when it comes to their hierarchy of need, there are often more immediate issues to address.

They hope partnering with regional veterans organizations and clubs to help get the word out about their services will yield more fruitful results, especially within rural communities that may not hear about the services through traditional means. Legal Aid services Jefferson County (which not surprisingly has the highest concentration of vets), as well as 19 surrounding counties. Already, some of the veterans they have helped are spreading the word to their networks through references or by posting flyers.

Linn Cassedy, a veteran who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, is one of them. The Bagdad, Ky., resident visited the inaugural clinic in June after hearing about the program through a veterans’ meeting in his area.

Cassedy says he has long known he should have life-planning documents but could never afford to have them professionally done. He believes once his peers find out about the resource, they’ll jump to it more quickly than other demographics because of the understood hazards of their jobs.

“What happens when you die without a will — it’s a really big problem,” says Cassedy. “I think people understand that, especially veterans."

 For more on Legal Aid Society, visit laslou.org.