President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE’s nominee to be the new secretary of Veterans Affairs - whether that turns out to be Dr. Ronny L. Jackson or a replacement nominee — will soon face the Senate for his confirmation. As a candidate to lead the largest civilian agency in the United States, with 360,000+ employees and a sacred mission to care for those who have borne the battle, he will need to answer a litany of serious questions before getting the job.
As someone who works with vulnerable veterans every day, I’m concerned that amid all the controversial issues sure to arise at his hearing a little-known but highly effective tool for veterans’ well-being will be omitted: civil legal aid.
Civil legal aid combats homelessness, improves health outcomes and supports families through times of stress. Civil legal aid also helps veterans fight for the VA benefits they’ve earned — oversight that becomes more necessary in times of turnover and change at the agency.
The civil justice system covers a wide range of issues: divorces and child custody disputes, consumer debt, landlord-tenant disputes and more. Many of us will face these challenges in our lifetimes, but for a subset of veterans who are especially vulnerable, they can be devastating, financially and emotionally.
When you’re accused of a crime, you get a public defender. But when you have a civil legal problem, you’re on your own — unless you can pay for a lawyer. For homeless or struggling veterans who can’t pay, those little legal issues snowball, debts get compounded and families fall apart.
That’s where civil legal aid attorneys at organizations like mine come in. We guide veterans through complex court proceedings, documents and filings and represent them for free. This essential help isn’t currently provided by VA, even though homeless veterans have been identifying legal problems as some of their greatest unmet needs for years.
As a civil legal aid attorney serving the most vulnerable subset of veterans in Connecticut, I am fortunate to see firsthand how my work makes a difference in their lives every day. For example, a veteran I’ll call Tom showed up at my office at the VA a few years ago with a question.
Tom, who served as a radio operator in Vietnam as a teenager, had already overcome PTSD and substance abuse to become an active leader of our local veterans community. He was generally pretty jolly, but that day he was a bundle of nerves.
He was facing eviction because his mental health challenges included hoarding, which impacted his landlord's ability to properly maintain his apartment. After months of phone calls, in person appointments, inspections and paperwork between Tom, his landlord, his psychiatrist and the local fire marshal, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center was able to keep Tom in his apartment.
He has lived there problem-free for several years. Without this help, Tom would have been one more homeless veteran; with this help he's continued to give his time supporting other veterans in recovery.
Stories like this led me to join other attorneys, as well as doctors, in an academic study of civil legal aid’s effect on health outcomes for vulnerable vets. The study, which was published in Health Affairs this past fall, concluded that veterans who got legal help integrated into VA care had improved mental health, more income and fewer days of homelessness. Fear and stress can have a powerful impact on the body and mind, but hope and relief can heal. That’s what civil legal aid provides to veterans caught in a downward spiral.
President Trump says he wants big changes at VA. Whatever your views on his policy goals, we can all agree that leadership transitions and strategy shifts can distract agencies from essential functions. With millions of veterans, their dependents and the survivors of the fallen depending on VA for vital services, those lost in the shuffle will need trained advocates on their side. Civil legal aid attorneys can help, if we’re properly resourced to prepare for the influx of need.
Many members of Congress are already on board. The Homelessness Veterans Prevention Act of 2017, which has bipartisan support from leaders like Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), includes funding for veteran-focused civil legal aid programs like mine. However, that bill has stalled without a vote. Right now, America’s veterans need to know that they can continue to count on the programs that help them protect their health, their homes and the families.
In our polarized political climate, there’s not much everyone can agree on. But most members of Congress and indeed most Americans, share a commitment to care for those who have served, their families and the survivors of the fallen and a belief in justice for all. With difficult times ahead for the VA, our senators must ask this nominee about the role of civil legal aid and his commitment to help every veteran get a lawyer who needs one, so we can ensure no veteran is left behind.
Margaret Middleton is the executive director of Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.