By Jo Mathis
The University of Detroit Mercy School of Law's Project SALUTE provides free legal advice to low-income veterans while teaching students how to use the law to serve others. More than 1,200 Michigan veterans have received free consultations. Project SALUTE has also traveled to 24 states, Washington D.C. and San Juan Puerto Rico, providing consultations to more than 2,200 veterans and training more than 800 volunteer attorneys.
Many students involved in Project SALUTE continue to volunteer after completing the veterans benefit law class and even after they graduate from the UDM School of Law.
Attorney Tammy M. Kudialis, director of Project SALUTE, talked to Jo Mathis of the Legal News about the program.
Mathis: What is the goal of Project SALUTE?
Kudialis: The three primary goals of Project SALUTE are:
1. Educating law students by providing one-on-one contact with real clients.
2. Educating veterans of their rights under federal law and providing individualized legal counsel to obtain benefits.
3. Educating attorneys in Michigan and around the country in Veterans benefit law to create a network of free assistance.
Mathis: How did you recognize the need for such a program?
Kudialis: UDM School of Law launched the Veterans Law Clinic in the fall of 2007. The clinic is housed at the law school and is a practicum for second and third year law students. USA Today ran a small article on the new clinic in their weekend publication. By the following Monday morning, we had over 600 voice mail messages from veterans all over the country asking for our help with their benefits claims.
Mathis: What makes these claims so complicated that veterans need help filing them?
Kudialis: Bureaucracy. Red tape and endless paperwork needlessly bogs down a benefits system that was intentionally designed by Congress to be non adversarial, veteran friendly and paternalistic. The reality for many veterans is that VA has, in many respects, become quite adversarial to veterans claims.
Mathis: Do veterans suspect it's purposefully complicated so that fewer veterans will receive aid, thus saving the government money?
Kudialis: Yes, absolutely. Numerous veterans all over the country have indicated to us that it is their belief that the government is waiting for them to give-up or die. Most often, the veterans say the government is waiting for them to die. How sad is that?
Mathis: So how does Project SALUTE work?
Kudialis: Project SALUTE is the pro bono project of UDM Law's Veterans Law Clinic practicing before the VA at the administrative level, and the newly created Veterans Appellate Clinic practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Second and third year law students under faculty supervision conduct outreach to provide individual consultations to veterans who need assistance appealing their denied federal veterans benefits claims.
A veteran's case may be opened in one of our two clinics, depending on where the case is currently pending, where students will provide the representation. Alternatively, in the case of a veteran needing representation before the administration, the case might be placed with a pro bono attorney who is participating with Project SALUTE.
Pro bono attorneys are offered free training on basic federal veteran benefits in exchange for providing free representation to a veteran on their benefits claim. Additionally, attorneys volunteering with Project SALUTE receive on-going mentoring to ensure the best possible outcome for the veteran.
In addition to holding outreach clinics at community based organizations, I take the program to Homeless Veteran Stand Downs in Michigan and other states where we are able to provide much needed assistance to a very specific group of underserved veterans. Stand Down is a gathering of service providers in one central location to provide assistance to veterans within a specified period of time. In terms of service providers, you might find onsite -- social security administration, DHS for health care screenings, mobile x-ray & dental unit, Salvation Army with clothes and toiletries, homeless shelter coordinators etc. Stand Down is a concept that originated during the Vietnam War to afford battle-weary soldiers a secure base camp area to renew - eat, get medical attention, receive mail from home etc.
Mathis: How do you get the word out that the Project SALUTE van is coming to their town?
Kudialis: Project SALUTE was launched in February 2008. At this point, I have a vast network of partners throughout Michigan and the country. Initially, law students and I would literally conduct all of the outreach -- calling, mailing, emailing, and visiting -- community-based organizations providing non-legal assistance to veterans. I would explain our free program and the benefit to their veteran clients.
Hands down, the providers welcomed Project SALUTE as the missing puzzle piece to their services. I have had such tremendous success in spreading the word about the project through community organizations that I regularly receive calls from all over the country asking for Project SALUTE to visit.
Mathis: What has surprised you about Project SALUTE?
Kudialis: One of the many things I found shocking when I was conducting the outreach myself was that I was actually connecting and creating partnerships for local service providers who in most cases were only a few miles from one another, but never knew the other existed and was helping veterans. It was clear to me that but for Project SALUTE these organizations would not have connected, thus, our outreach was actually creating new partnerships that would grow to provide an even stronger local network of assistance for veterans. Although initially shocked by this finding, being the conduit for these new relationships has become some of the work that I am most proud of.
Mathis: Where does the money come from to support the project?
Kudialis: Project SALUTE is extremely fortunate to be supported by UDM School of Law Dean, Lloyd Semple, and the UDM community, as well as a grant from the State of Michigan for assistance to Michigan Veterans.
Project SALUTE also receives many private donations as it touches people in a very special way by providing the opportunity to give something back to the brave men and women who have served our nation.
Mathis: How many UDM students and faculty have gotten involved, and in what ways?
Kudialis: There have been four clinical faculty members and more than 100 law students involved in the program since inception. Students work on cases opened in-house under the supervision of the clinical faculty.
Mathis: How have you developed a network of pro-bono attorneys offering free legal services to veterans?
Kudialis: Reaching out to bar organizations, legal services providers, large law firms and solo practitioners to explain the program and the critical need for competent legal assistance for our veterans. I've found that the majority of our attorney volunteers are in some way connected to the military community -either veterans themselves or have a family member, friend, colleague etc. who has served or is currently serving in the armed forces.
Mathis: What's next for Project SALUTE?
Kudialis: Project SALUTE will continue to provide law student assistance to veterans on their federal benefits appeals and continue to train volunteer attorneys to do the same.
Coming up next month, I arranged a special program with 36th District Court Judge Leonia Lloyd to hold the first ever Homeless Veterans Stand Down Court at the Southeastern Michigan Veterans Stand Down in Detroit on Occt. 12 and 13. The Stand Down Court will address veterans with misdemeanor offenses in Detroit and provide treatment for the root cause of the offense instead of punishment.
Published: Thu, Sep 15, 2011