New digital classroom to provide critical legal resource for Veterans with discharge issues

By Ramona du Houx

On April 24, 2018, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, in partnership with the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, unveiled a groundbreaking online legal resource for veterans nationwide seeking to correct their deeply stigmatizing and harmful “less- than-honorable” discharges from the military.

The new tool will be hosted on Pine Tree’s “Stateside Legal” website, which was launched with funding support from the Legal Services Corporation and is viewed by thousands of visitors each week. A team of law student interns and veterans’ advocates designed the tool to serve as an “online classroom” for veterans who may lack access to legal counsel. 

"Many veterans served their country bravely but yet are not considered 'veterans' by the VA due to their discharge status. These veterans do not receive VA benefits or VA healthcare and often face barriers to stable employment and consequently, stable housing,” said Krista Selnau, a staff attorney at Pine Tree Legal Services who helped design the tool. “Despite recent changes by the Pentagon to require liberal consideration of the 'invisible wounds of war' (PTSD, TBI and sexual trauma) in discharge upgrade applications, many veterans are unaware of these changes and applications remain notoriously complicated. This classroom provides clarity for veterans seeking a path forward."

Many veterans with less-than-honorable discharges were separated from the military due to minor misconduct related to undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs).

Others were retaliated against for speaking out about sexual assault or harassment they experienced during military service, and many others faced discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Despite serving their country at home and abroad, these veterans are saddled with a stigmatizing less-than-honorable discharge that prevents them from accessing the VA benefits needed to meet their medical and financial needs. 

“Organizations like Connecticut Veterans Legal Center represent as many veterans as possible; however, the scope of the problem is so vast, we cannot serve all those in need,” said Margaret Kuzma, staff attorney at CVLC. “We are thrilled Stateside Legal and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic have created this online discharge upgrade guide so veterans can remedy their wrongful or unjust discharges and gain access to the benefits they earned through their service.”

While the military has taken steps in recent years to address this issue, including creating more liberal rules for obtaining discharge upgrades and permitting veterans who previously applied to re-apply, many veterans have yet to benefit from these reforms. Many veterans remain unaware that they are eligible for reconsideration of their discharge status.

Garry Monk, Executive Director of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR), a New Haven based veterans advocacy group, said that the new online tool was “user-friendly, very informative, and welcomed,” and that he could “envision thousands of veterans employing it to upgrade their discharge.”

The goal is to dramatically expand the number of veterans seeking and winning the discharge upgrades they need. 

The digital classroom can be found at http://statesidelegal.org/discharge-upgrade-classroom.