Serving Those Who Served

UCLA has long provided an array of services to local veterans. Now, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the university is adding three centers on the VA campus.

Will Watts, co-director at the Legal Clinic, and Jonathan Varat, chief UCLA liaison to Veterans Affairs. Photos by Michelle Groskopf.

When parents arrive with their children at the UCLA VA Veteran Family Wellness Center, they’re frequently struggling with a stockpile of sorrows: estrangement from the extended family, substance abuse or PTSD.

“Right now I’m seeing a mom,” says Gabriela Alejos, a “family trainer” at the center. “She has a 4-year-old, and they’ve been dealing with the deployment of her partner, the father of her child. They’ve having a really hard time.”

That’s why Alejos — and her co-workers — include playtime on their list of strategies. A little fun, she explains, “creates a safe environment for a child to be heard. … Having a child lead in that dynamic provides a space for a parent to lead outside of the play world. They don’t have to test limits as much if they can [both] be in control of something.”

Filling in the Gaps
The Veteran Family Wellness Center is one of three tent poles of an expanded partnership between the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and UCLA, which has committed $16.5 million over 10 years to programs designed to enhance the care of a population with a unique set of needs. The wellness center opened on the West L.A. VA campus in August, as did the UCLA School of Law Veterans Clinic. A center that will focus on veteran homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues is in the works.

The goal? Filling in gaps in care by treating the root causes of problems.

On any given day, participants in the new programs are being coached on communication or parenting skills, signing up for resilience training, or receiving assistance as they navigate the often byzantine process of dealing with a court citation or appealing a benefits ruling.

A Suite of Services
The new offerings are the latest development in a decades-long relationship between UCLA and the VA.

An official history of UCLA notes that “175 disabled veterans enrolled in courses” at the University of California “Southern Branch,” which opened on Vermont Avenue in 1919. During the post–World War II era, thousands of vets attended UCLA, thanks to the GI Bill or other government provisions. A campus Office of Veterans Affairs was established in 1945, and the university provided housing for veterans and their families for a time.

In addition, the VA Hospital and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have long been connected. Medical school faculty train doctors at the VA, and both residents and faculty treat thousands of veterans every year. Meanwhile, UCLA social work, nursing and public health students train and conduct research at the VA, serving veterans.

Today, UCLA’s “suite” of services for veterans includes the Student Veterans Resource Center; Operation Mend, a program established to treat the wounds of war; UCLA Anderson School’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities; the Brain Injury Research Center; and recreational activities at the West L.A. VA campus.

Does the expansion of services indicate that veterans’ needs are growing?

“Thankfully, [as a country] we pay closer attention now,” says Jonathan D. Varat, a former dean of the UCLA School of Law who is the chief liaison between the university and the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and as we all know, close to 58,000 Americans were killed in [that conflict]. In this more recent set of long wars … the number [of casualties] is always too high, but it’s [a percentage] of that 58,000. The reason is mostly medical successes,” Varat adds. “Unfortunately, soldiers then were not able to survive wounds that today, because of medical improvements, result in traumatic brain injuries or other issues.”

View of the grounds near the Wellness Center.

The historic chapel at the VA.

The Veterans Next Door
The 388-acre VA campus, just west of UCLA, occupies land that was donated by wealthy benefactors in the 1880s to establish a home for disabled soldiers. The park-like campus is home to several historic buildings, including the Victorian-era Wadsworth Chapel and structures that exemplify the Mission and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural styles of the early 20th century. But some of the buildings, including the chapel, are empty or in dire need of repair, an indication of how the campus has changed in the last few decades.

The VA once provided housing for thousands of veterans in West L.A., but in the 1960s, it stopped accepting new residents. The VA continued to offer medical and other types of services, but it also leased land and buildings to institutions such as 20th Century Fox and UCLA, whose baseball team practices and plays at Jackie Robinson Stadium there.

A 2011 lawsuit alleging misuse of the property resulted in a 2015 settlement that included a master plan devoted to housing, legal, health and job services for veterans. That settlement led to the agreement between UCLA and the VA that allows the baseball team to continue to use the stadium (at the annual rent of $300,000) and includes the expansion of support services for veterans, including the wellness center.

Surveying the toys and children’s books, center executive director Tess Banko says the facility, which operates as part of the UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center, offers the first programs on the VA campus that serve children. An important theme of all the classes and coaching — which are available to individuals as well as families — is resilience. The work at the center, Banko explains, “is based on the FOCUS [Families OverComing Under Stress] model, which was pioneered in part at UCLA.” FOCUS, which has been exported to more than 30 military bases worldwide, offers training in life skills such as emotional regulation, communication, collaborative problem solving and goal setting.

Changing Their Reality
Diana Helena, who served in the Navy from 1997 to 2001, says her experiences at the wellness center have been “lifesaving.” She adds: “The people here aren’t these rigid clichés that you sometimes find on [military] bases. They are loving, caring, kind and non-robotic. I felt it was a place I could take my children.”

Diana Helena, who served in the U.S. Navy.

Helena today.

 

Helena, the mother of an 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, is a big believer in the FOCUS program. Her family was struggling with various issues after she and her husband divorced, and she says her children “needed another adult who wasn’t me, listening to them.”

Now, she continues, “We are learning how to be a ‘three’ when we had been a ‘four.’ ”

Helena says that playtime has been a big part of her family’s time at the center: “Every session we have involves play. You’re actively doing something. We are painting and drawing. If you let [children] know you value their opinion … it changes their reality.”

Diana Helena with her family trainer, Angel Barrios.

José Pérez, an Army veteran, an officer in the National Guard and a project engineer with a construction company, sang the praises of FOCUS at an official opening ceremony last fall. The father of four says that when he returned from his third deployment to Iraq several years ago, he was “having a hard time feeling connected and dealing with my kids. [The FOCUS program] helped me regroup and connect with them.

“It was,” he adds, “one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Since its opening, Banko says, the wellness center has “touched” more than 1,000 veterans and family members.

Moving Forward with Their Lives
The UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic, located just a few hundred yards north of the wellness center, was created to help veterans “remove or address legal barriers and then let them move forward with their lives,” says clinic co-director Will Watts, who teaches and helps supervise the second- and third-year law students who work there.

On any given day, the students might be assisting veterans with changes in veteran benefits (”Maybe they feel their condition has deteriorated and believe they are entitled to an increase,” Watts explains) or helping them with minor traffic offenses — for example, citations that, if left unattended, can turn into much larger issues.

Judah Schultz, a young Army veteran, is effusive in his praise of the legal clinic. “In August, I was in Long Beach and I made a crossing and got a ticket,” he says. “I panicked. I couldn’t have this on my record.”

Judah Schultz, a young veteran who was discharged due to injury during training.

Judah Schultz meets with co-director Will Watts at the Legal Clinic.

UCLA School of Law students Ian Grady and Emily Waterhouse “wrote a very elegant motion,” Schultz says, and after the students appeared in court with him, the judge “dismissed the case.” He adds: “I would go [to the clinic] again. They really put time and effort into it.”

Since its opening, the clinic has assisted more than 80 men and women. For veterans, “Just having someone to work through their history … makes a difference in terms of how they are feeling in general,” Watts says. The client “knows there is someone in the trenches with them.”

The third prong in the expanded partnership, the VA UCLA Center of Excellence for Training and Research in Veteran Homelessness and Recovery, is in the works. Varat says this new center will “increase the quality of care, treatment and outreach for the homeless and those with substance abuse and health problems.”

A Win-Win
It’s not only local veterans who are benefiting. Law students get clinical experience, university health-care providers and researchers acquire new areas of expertise, and graduates of UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities launch new businesses. “We have people across campus working and training [at the VA],” says Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, executive director of communication and advocacy in the UCLA Office of Government & Community Relations. “There are research projects that span both campuses.”

Heidi Marston, administrative director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, says the new programs “are something great from our perspective. It brings in outside ideas.” And it’s possible some of those ideas will be replicated at VA campuses nationwide. Says Marston, “Our thoughts going in were that if we can make it happen [at the West L.A. campus] … we can make it happen anywhere.”

Watts and Varat.

Veterans Outreach Fair to offer health, legal services March 30

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State College of Nursing and Penn State Law will co-sponsor a Veterans Outreach Fair from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, at the law school’s Lewis Katz Building on the University Park campus.

The fair is being offered as a way to thank veterans and their families for their sacrifice and commitment to serving their country.

Students, faculty and community partners will offer a variety of services, including health screenings and education and legal consultation — all free of charge — to veterans of the U.S. armed forces across Pennsylvania, including members of the Pennsylvania National Guard and Penn State employee veterans. The Katz Building parking lot is open to visitors on weekends. 

“Veterans and their families have done so much for us. We are grateful for this opportunity to show them our appreciation for their service,” said Michele Vollmer, director of Penn State Law’s Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic. “The law school’s participation in Penn State’s Outreach Fair not only provides a valuable service to veterans and their families, but is also a great opportunity for our students to interact with clients.”

Penn State Law will offer free consultations on general civil legal issues, including: 

  • Driver’s license suspensions or fines.
  • Small claims court issues.
  • Personal property issues.
  • Consumer issues.
  • Child support debts or back payments.
  • Clean slate law and expungement information.

Participants may schedule a 30-minute appointment with law students supervised by professional volunteers. The law school’s Veterans Clinic students also will be able to answer questions about Veterans Affairs disability appeals. The clinic specializes in handling complex appeals and helping veterans obtain needed medical evidence. Since its inception in 2015, the clinic has won more than $1.5 million in benefits for its clients.

Students in the Community and Family Health Nursing course will conduct health screenings, including vital signs, pulse oximetry, and depression screening. They also will provide information on a variety of health topics, including:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse/Narcan use.
  • Smoking cessation.
  • Sun safety/mole screening.
  • Lyme disease prevention and detection.
  • Nutrition and exercise.
  • Stroke awareness.
  • Domestic violence.

College of Nursing faculty and students will provide consultations about prescription and nonprescription medications. Participants are encouraged to bring their medications with them, along with any questions they may have.

“Service is a core part of our mission at the College of Nursing,” said Kelly Wolgast, assistant dean for online education and outreach at the College of Nursing. “We believe extending outreach services related to health and wellness will benefit the veteran population in central Pennsylvania. Our collaboration with Penn State Law students and faculty will make this outreach stronger.”

Veterans can register for the fair at https://pennstatelaw.psu.edu/vetoutreach2019.

The Veterans and Servicemembers’ Legal Clinic trains Penn State Law students to provide legal representation to veterans and current service members in specialized and complex areas of statutory and regulatory law, and to advocate on behalf of veterans and those serving in the military on policy matters at both the state and federal levels. For more information on the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, visit its website or email veteransclinic@pennstatelaw.psu.edu.

The Penn State College of Nursing offers integrated programs of nursing education, research, scholarship and outreach to achieve its mission of improving the health of all people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world. For more information on the college and the programs it offers, visit its website.

Veterans Clinic Wins Disability, Large Back Pay Awards for PA, NJ Veterans

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic has won several disability and back pay awards for veterans since its inception nearly four years ago, all while providing students hands-on experience with administrative law, pretrial litigation and appellate advocacy skills.

One of the clinic’s most recent and substantial victories was on behalf of Lehigh County veteran Allen Blose, who applied many years ago for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stemming from his service as a “volunteer” for chemical warfare testing. Blose was injected with four different toxins, including the nerve agent VX. Just a few drops of VX rubbed on the face of a North Korean in an airport incident in 2017 was fatal.

From 1965 to 1975, the Army, CIA, and VA conducted chemical warfare testing at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal facility located in the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The government exposed young soldiers in the military to toxins to test the short-term effects without regard to the long-term health consequences, treating them like human guinea pigs. Blose was 24 years old when he was exposed to the nerve agent.

Clinic students worked closely on Blose’s case with Tom Applebach, director of Lehigh County’s Office of Veterans Affairs. His expertise and close relationship with the VA’s Regional Office, combined with the students’ scientific knowledge and work with an expert, helped Blose to receive a 100-percent disability rating with back pay for 23 years.

Third-year Penn State Law student Tiffany Kernen worked on Blose’s claim for over a year. The payoff for her in terms of experience was as huge as her client’s victory. Kernen interviewed the client multiple times, attended a hearing with him, and examined many VA decisions looking for errors to appeal, and she was the first person to notice VX was given to Blose. The VA had ignored the damaging effects of VX, which caused a series of medical issues for the veteran.

Kernen had help from 3Ls Ashley Clasen and Kyle Russell who gathered scientific evidence from a successful class action filed by Edgewood victims against the government. Clasen and Kernen asked Jack Vanden Heuvel, professor of molecular toxicology at Penn State, for help with understanding the scientific evidence and medical expert testimony. The clinic then hired its own expert, Dr. Robert S. Brown Jr., using donations from other veterans. Brown showed the connection between the VX injection and Blose’s ocular toxoplasmosis, a parasitic eye infection, and other conditions. Brown found that the VX produced immunosuppression and central nervous system damage.

Kernen used her clinic experience to intern at the Board of Veterans Appeals last summer, while Russell helped his father, a Vietnam veteran, to file his own claim and win. The younger Russell said he “would have never known about this option” without his participation in the clinic and Penn State Law Professor Michele Vollmer’s Veterans Benefits Law class.

Third-year student Katherine McNally took lessons from Blose’s appeal and helped a second Edgewood victim this semester. McNally said that “working in the clinic with Professor Vollmer was a very rewarding and insightful experience. I was given numerous opportunities to develop client interaction skills by observing multiple interviews, conducting a few of my own interviews, and emailing and calling clients throughout the semester. The best part of my clinic experience was working directly with clients and listening to the veterans talk about their military service and their life after service.”

The clinic also works with other Pennsylvania County Veterans Affairs Offices, including Allegheny, Bedford, Centre, Dauphin, Elk, McKean, and Montgomery Counties. Recent graduate Elva Perales helped Jim Caruso from Elk County to win $40,000 in back pay and a 40 percent disability award for his stomach cancer. She also helped New Jersey Vietnam Veteran Joe Stefano to win service-connection and a combined rating of 60 percent for multiple conditions, providing over $1,000 in monthly benefits.

The clinic has its closest relationship with Centre County Director Brian Querry. The two offices collaborate on many claims. Their first collaboration in 2015 was for former Penn State Professor of Counseling Psychology Bob Slaney, who commanded a Pathfinder detachment in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange, and was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). The clinic students first won service-connection and later won a 100-percent disability rating.

Using Querry’s expertise with the VA’s new Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) and the clinic’s scientific and medical knowledge about AML, the students were able to win service connection and 100-percent disability ratings in the same decision on a faster track for two more Vietnam veterans with AML this semester. Veterans with 100-percent disability collect over $3,000 in monthly benefits.

Recent graduate Adrian Rogers said his work on an AML appeal “was one of the greatest experiences of my three years at Penn State Law. I was able to witness firsthand the hard work and commitment it takes to support your clients wholeheartedly.” 

AML client Dr. Ronald Mehok from Pittsburgh spent his service in Vietnam in the operating room saving soldiers. He did not expect to see a favorable decision from the VA in his lifetime. He wrote to Penn State Law Dean Hari M. Osofsky to praise the clinic students and their quick victory. He also thanked clinic volunteer attorney Leah Davis, who connected Mehok with the clinic. She knew Mehok and his family from her work for the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Third-year student Bethany Ashworth, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and future military judge advocate general officer, wants the VA to make AML a presumptive disease connected to Agent Orange exposure. She got the idea from AML client Slaney and his wife, Jill Morgan. Morgan, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Duke University, provided the clinic with her own research on several other leukemias that were on the Agent Orange presumptive list and questioned why AML was not.  

Adding to Morgan’s research, Ashworth, Clasen, Kernen, and recent Penn State Law graduate Casey College spent many hours studying the scientific reasons why other diseases were presumptive for Agent Orange exposure. Ashworth, with assistance from College and Vollmer, wrote a law review article to advocate for AML to be added to the VA’s presumptive list, which the clinic hopes to publish in spring 2019.

Ashworth argues in the article that because the VA added AML to a presumptive list for Camp Lejeune victims, it should add AML to the Agent Orange list. Camp Lejeune victims drank water on base that was contaminated with benzene and other toxins. Benzene is also a harmful toxin in Agent Orange. When making AML presumptive for Camp Lejeune, the VA relied on a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). In contrast, when declining to make AML presumptive, the VA relied on a report by the National Academy of Sciences. The clinic’s law review article argues that the studies examined by the ATSDR were broader and better able to address the scientific question and the article will highlight the need for more coordination within the rulemaking arm of the VA.

Veterans Clinic students do not just master client interviewing, document review, or medical and legislative history research. They also hone their appellate advocacy skills. Third-year student Thorsten Swider and recent graduate Matthew Selmasska made amici oral arguments—one for the prosecution and one for the defense—before the U.S. Air Force Criminal Court of Appeals last spring. Both advocates led teams of other clinic students, including 3L James Hutchison and L.L.M. graduate Ekakshra Mahajan, who wrote two amici briefs for the court. The chief judge of the court gave each clinic student an Air Force medallion coin to recognize their hard work and dedication to the appeal.

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