American FlagToday is Veterans Day, a ritual day of thanks to honor the women and men who have served in the US armed forces. I think it is also a day to acknowledge the toll that military service takes on those who serve – and to identify solutions that can help ease their burdens.

The life of an enlisted person returning home is uniquely complicated. Returning veterans face enormous obstacles to maintaining their quality of life and achieving economic stability. Despite the number of existing safety net and supportive services out there, many former servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. For example, veterans are still 50 percent more likely to become homeless due to poverty than other Americans.The unemployment rate among veterans is three percent higher than the rest of the country’s population. Those with mental or physical health problems are even more likely to be homeless or unemployed; many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, leading to an alarming increase in the suicide rate of those returning from recent conflicts.

Sick or disabled veterans require specialized support to navigate the complex web of courts and government agencies in order to obtain the benefits and services to which they are entitled – and they know it. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (in a survey they have been conducting since 1994) access to legal assistance is one of the top three unmet needs cited every year by the veterans surveyed.

At NYLAG, we see it everyday on the faces of the vets we work with in New York City. For the last year, our LegalHealth Unit has been addressing the needs of veterans at two New York City Veterans Administration hospitals where we provide free civil legal services. Through a medical-legal partnership similar to those we have with 18 other City hospitals, our onsite attorney is integrated into the patients’ medical care team to address non-medical problems such as housing, social security disability and other public benefits issues, discharge upgrades, family law issues, and advance planning. The demand for our services has been staggering: in one year our dedicated attorney has handled 884 legal matters for 572 veteran clients. That is nearly three times the number of matters an attorney typically handles in other settings. We’ve prevented evictions, secured appropriate government assistance, improved housing conditions, and provided a whole host of other services to stabilize the lives of our clients.

Our VA hospital experience is dramatic proof that these types of medical-legal partnerships work. They help sick and disabled veterans overcome complex and daunting bureaucracies, connecting them to solutions that improve their health and well-being. The model should become the norm at VA hospitals across the country. Our nation’s veterans have done enough – they shouldn’t have to fight their own legal battles too.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge