Stetson University College of Law opened its Veterans Law Institute on the Gulfport campus less than five months ago. The Veterans Advocacy Clinic already has 20 cases pending or in the pipeline and more than 60 inquiries from veterans looking for help.
Director Michael Allen said this fall semester four law students are working in the clinic helping veterans file for VA benefits or appeal rulings. He hopes to have eight law students working by spring semester.
“It (the legal clinic) allows law students under the supervision of a licensed attorney to actually interact with real clients,” Allen said. “This allows law students to develop the skills they’ll need when the graduate and begin to practice and it also allows a clinic to serve a defined population.”
There’s a lot of demand from veterans needing help with their benefit claims. Allen said
Department of Veterans Affairs is set up to be veteran friendly and VA counselors are there to help, Allen said, but they're overwhelmed. In 2011 alone, more than 1 million claims were filed adding to an overwhelming backlog.
Seeing so many veterans in need is why student veterans at Stetson pushed for the establishment of a Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
Stetson professor Charles Rose recounted during the Institute's ribbon cutting May 31, 2012 one veteran's story that kept him motivated.
"Four years ago, I promised a young Marine if he would come here, I would give him a way to do the thing that his heart called him to do," Rose said. "What did he want? He wanted to learn how to take care of soldiers, he wanted to have the power to represent and to make a difference in their lives."
That young Marine was Javier Centonzio.
"On Feb 20, 2006 while deployed in Iraq, a roadside bomb took the life of one of my very best friends," Centonzio told the crowd during the dedication ceremony. "I made a promise to him that day that I would come back, graduate from law school and continue to serve others until the day that I stop breathing."
Centonzio, a 2012 Stetson College of Law graduate, is now clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.
There are Veteran Services Organizations - known as VOS - that help veterans with benefit claims. However, Allen said, there are not nearly enough. The backlog for claims was more than 890,000 cases in September. And, a case takes on average eight months to process.
“Sometimes these delays can seem quite maddening,” Allen said.
That’s why Allen wants to rev up the advocacy mission of Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute to push for reforms that could streamline the VA process.
Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute is also working to train more lawyers in military law.
Stetson and the Florida Bar are sponsoring a Veterans Law Accreditation training program Oct. 27, 2012, at the Stetson Tampa Law Center, 1700 N. Tampa St.
Judge Robert N. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C., will present the keynote address, “Fighting Wars Abroad and at Home.”