Opinion: Remember veterans’ continuing legal needs

U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Alan Chair, left, Greenwich American Legion Commander Peter LeBeau, center, and First Selectman Fred Camillo honor veterans with the placing of a wreath at the Veterans Day Ceremony at the WWI Monument in Greenwich on Nov. 11.

U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Alan Chair, left, Greenwich American Legion Commander Peter LeBeau, center, and First Selectman Fred Camillo honor veterans with the placing of a wreath at the Veterans Day Ceremony at the WWI Monument in Greenwich on Nov. 11.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

The parades are over, the banners have come down, and most of us have moved on, satisfied to have thanked veterans for their service on Veterans Day. But veterans do not have that option. Their identity as veterans is a part of them that they carry every day, which is a well-earned source of pride — and sometimes a liability. Veterans come home more likely to suffer from physical and emotional injuries, more likely to experience homelessness, and more likely to die by suicide than the civilian population, and it is our duty to help make them whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the need for assistance. The veterans’ community was hit disproportionately by the pandemic, with greater proportions of veterans contracting serious cases of the virus and some veteran-heavy industries particularly impacted. These impacts have led to increased housing and food insecurity and have increased the mental health burdens on those already struggling. In light of their sacrifices to our nation, it is particularly important that we provide all the support that our veterans need to safely and successfully reintegrate into their communities.

According to the VA’s annual CHALENG survey, seven of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans are legal issues. Fortunately, veterans legal aid organizations, like Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, can provide free legal support to veterans struggling with these issues. Our medical-legal partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs allows us to identify veterans at risk, and over the last year the number of veterans requiring our services has grown significantly.

Since the expirations of the state and federal eviction moratoria, more veterans are facing eviction, requiring rapid response legal intervention to ensure that they are not put out on the street. The VA has several programs in place to assist veterans facing homelessness, but they can be difficult for veterans to navigate on their own, especially while facing court action from their landlords. In addition to providing such legal support directly, legal aid programs like CVLC partner with an extensive network of pro bono attorneys, such as our pro bono partner and 2021 Veteran Justice Award recipient Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP, whose pro bono attorneys have worked diligently to ensure that veterans can stay in their homes.

With large numbers of veterans losing employer-provided health care, it has also been increasingly important to help veterans receive VA health care. Although most veterans are entitled to health care through the VA, the enrollment process can be complicated. Furthermore, for veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, enrollment requires a lengthy process to determine eligibility, and veterans are often improperly denied access to VA health care, requiring intervention by an attorney.

Providing free legal services to veterans serves to resolve these important practical issues such as housing stability and access to health care, but it also serves to address the epidemic of veteran suicides. Veterans have consistently higher rates of suicide than the civilian population, but there are critical interventions that could help reduce this rate. Veterans not using VA health care account for almost two thirds of veteran suicides, so improving access to VA health care can be lifesaving. In addition to problems with access to health care, it has been found that veterans facing legal problems are about 50 percent more likely to die by suicide than those who are not.

The need for legal services for veterans is clear, and the infrastructure to provide it has been building as well. CVLC started in 2009 as the first medical-legal partnership with the VA, but there are now 31 VA medical-legal partnerships providing free legal services to veterans in coordination with their medical care teams. Studies have shown that veterans receiving services from these partnerships have improved mental health, reduced substance abuse issues, and more secure housing. The U.S. government has taken notice. The White House recently released a new strategy to address veteran suicide, which included a focus on stabilizing veterans’ health care and finances by reducing housing and food insecurity and improving access to health care, as well as improving the coordination of care between health care providers and other supportive services. This year, Sen. Chris Murphy also introduced legislation which would encourage the provision and funding of veterans’ legal aid. All of these approaches are needed, and it is critical that we continue to expand and properly fund veterans’ legal assistance.

So as you turn the page on this year’s Veterans Day, we ask that you remember the veterans who are still struggling to keep roofs over their heads and food on the table, who made significant sacrifices in service and now need our support. Make sure to let your representatives know how important it is that veterans receive the legal support that they need. If you are in a position to provide pro bono legal assistance, please reach out and see how you can help. Our veterans are an incredible resource for our communities, and we need to make the proper investment in them for them to thrive. It’s time to treat every day like Veterans Day and ensure that our actions live up to our ideals.

Steve Kennedy is a pre-law fellow at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and an Iraq War veteran.