WVU Fellowship Winner Aims To Help Veterans Access Benefits

May 8, 2017

You might not expect a veteran to be less-than-honorably discharged due to mental trauma...but that’s the issue many veterans are facing today. One student at West Virginia University is going around the state with lawyers to help veterans get access to benefits.

Thirteen percent of discharges from 1991 - 2013 are less-than-honorable, according to a study by Swords to Plowshares in conjunction with Harvard Law School. That’s more than 500,000 veterans, who are less qualified for benefits, and carry a life-long stigma. WVU student Garrett Burgess hopes to help solve that problem. He’s partnering with WVU College of Law’s Veterans’ Advocacy Clinic. Garrett says he plans to enter the military, and that’s is the reason he wants to help the clinic.

“Whether that is what I want to do with my career...there’s not really that aspect that I’m aiming at, but rather the kind of things that we all should be doing and serving as military officers is what my ultimate goal is, and that’s helping one another out as much as we can,” said Garrett.

The clinic provides veterans with lawyers to fight a bad paper discharge. Director of the clinic Jennifer Oliva says these discharges mostly stem from lower-level misconduct, such as drinking or being absent without leave.

“What we find out, though, is that when people are traumatized...when they’ve been in combat...they’ve been shot at...they watched their battle buddy die in front of their eyes or get blown up with an IED...there’s a lot of trauma there, and it often affects the person’s behavior,” said Oliva.

  

Credit Shayla Klein

  The clinic believes many of these veterans are suffering from acute symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Congress recently confirmed that some less-than-honorable discharges are the fault of bad screening procedures for PTSD and other mental health issues. It wasn’t until 2014 that a mental health official was required to review discharges. And a program providing mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges is expected to come out soon. However, the official reviewing discharges can be a physician with training on mental health issues, and the new program is limited to veterans in immediate mental health distress.

It’s these issues that inspired Garrett to use his Newman Civic Fellowship to help the Veteran’s Advocacy Clinic. The fellowship is led by a non-profit called Campus Compact. Universities nominate one person per school to receive the fellowship, and from there, Campus Compact chooses fellows. There are almost 300 Newman Fellows nationwide this year. Those students will have a resource guide to learn a number of skills so they can complete a project of their choice. They will learn how to network in the community to reach out to groups, and how to use your assets wisely.

Garrett will be travelling across the state, giving presentations and talking to veterans about discharge rights. Law students will be going with him to help people fill out claims and answer legal questions.