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At State Bar Summit, Attorneys Urged to Aid Veterans With Legal Issues
New York Law Journal
Lawyers eager to help military personnel who have fought in the more than decade-long conflict in the Middle East were urged yesterday to show patience toward veterans as they try to transition back into civilian life.
A panel of experts on veterans and their legal needs told more than 200 people attending the Presidential Summit yesterday at the annual New York State Bar Association meeting at the Hilton New York in Manhattan that although former service personnel or members of the guard and reserve can use legal assistance, few will be inclined to ask for it because of the military's creed of self-sufficiency.
"When they are home, they'll try to handle their own problems," said Gary Yaple, CEO of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester. "They'll bury it. They'll self-medicate, as we've seen so many times, when they try to come up with their own solutions. But they're very compliant. When you need answers, be direct and ask for those answers and I think you'll find that you'll get them."
John Powers, a Hancock Estabrook partner in Syracuse who is director of the Onondaga County Bar Association's pro bono veterans' clinic, said it is no wonder that veterans attempting to reintegrate into civilian life experience personal issues that manifest in scrapes with the criminal justice system or in Family Court.
"If you look at the major stressors on anybody's life," such as changes in careers, locations and major relationships, coupled with trauma, "including trauma on the battlefield and intense physical fear for your safety," Powers said, that creates the "perfect storm of stress that these veterans are dealing with."
He said it is not easy for lawyers to get close enough to veterans to dissect how to best serve their legal needs.
"Sometimes these clients can be a little prickly to deal with," said Powers, a former Army Ranger. "You know, they may rub you the wrong way so you have to have that understanding of where they're coming from," he said, adding that lawyers had to have thick skin and remain non-judgmental.
"Above all else, you have to be patient," he said.
Attendees were urged to contact their counties' veterans' services coordinators as well as local Veterans Administration hospitals, Legal Aid Society offices and law schools to offer their assistance.
Buffalo City Court Judge Robert Russell, who developed the first veterans' treatment court in the nation in 2008, also stressed the need for patience.
"Some may come back with invisible wounds of war," Russell said. "They look visibly put together to you, but at the same time they may be going through other challenges and readjusting to home. So a degree of patience and sensitivity to that fact is needed."
The keynote speaker was Colonel David Sutherland, executive director of the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services and a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the problems of military and ex-military personnel.
"The signature wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan are post-traumatic stress and mild traumatic brain injury and they manifest themselves in front of our families where we look the same and may act differently," said Sutherland, who served several tours in Iraq. "And the No. 1 remedy for dealing with the effects of combat is feeling like you fit in, feeling connected."
The presentation was organized at the behest of state bar president Seymour James Jr., attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice of the Legal Aid Society. Each year, the current bar president selects two topics to highlight at the "summit" held during the annual meeting.
A special committee of the state bar appointed by the group's past president, Vincent Doyle III of Buffalo, has developed a report on legal needs of returning veterans and how the legal community can help.
The bar's House of Delegates is expected during its meeting on Friday to vote to make permanent the Special Committee on Veterans.
A second panel examined hindrances to better voter participation.
Attorneys John Dunne of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany and Daniel Kolb of Davis, Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan cochaired a Special Committee on Voter Participation at James' behest. The committee is to present its recommendations for approval by the House of Delegates on Friday.
A panel member, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the adoption of new voter identification requirements has posed a threat to what had been government's traditional role of encouraging participation in elections by qualified voters. He called "phony" the argument used to justify new ID requirements: that there is an "epidemic" of voting by unqualified voters.
"There is no massive epidemic of the one kind of voter fraud that voter ID can do anything about, which is in-person voter impersonation," Waldman said. "How do we know this? Because study after study have found that you are more likely to be killed by lightning in the United States than to commit in-person voter impersonation."
But Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow for the civil justice reform initiative at the Heritage Foundation, said voter fraud does exist and that more stringent voter ID rules have not deterred voter turnout in two states where they have been implemented, Georgia and Indiana.
"Nobody says there's an epidemic of it," von Spakovsky said. "There are some places in the country where elections are run fairly cleanly. There are other places where they're not. But the point is that elections have been changed by fraud and one of the most common-sense solution to this is requiring ID when you vote."
Other panelists were Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, and Theodore Shaw, a professor at Columbia Law School.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.