When Lawrence Brown returned stateside from the Vietnam War, the combat veteran from Pursglove, West Virginia was overwhelmed by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rooted in that daily struggle, Brown was absent from the Army without leave on a couple of occasions, ultimately leading to a less than honorable discharge.
“This was before the time when post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized as a disability,” said Jed Nolan, director of the West Virginia University College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic. “Now that that is a recognized diagnosis and he has received that diagnosis, we’re going to go back and apply to the board of the Army to make sure that he is recognized for his Meritorious Service.
“What this is going to do when he gets his discharge status upgraded from less than honorable to the honorable status that he’s earned is it’s going to unlock additional benefits for him to access,” he continued. “He’s going to have benefits available to him that he didn’t have before.”
Brown turned to the WVU College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic for relief after private practices wouldn’t take on his case without money upfront – money he didn’t have.
“I’m very appreciative of WVU,” Brown said. “I couldn’t get anyone else to do anything unless I had a fortune to pay right out to them. It’s just like bankruptcy, they want money upfront. If I had money, I wouldn’t be looking for bankruptcy.”
Donor-funded support allows Nolan’s student-led clinic at WVU to offer legal assistance to veterans like Brown at no cost. The clinic currently has 35 open cases with a minimal wait list and has assisted over 70 veterans since August of 2019 alone.
“We provide service to any veteran who comes through the door,” Nolan said. “If they have a benefits claim, we help them out with that. If they need a discharge upgrade, we’ll help them out with that. We’ll talk with any veteran about any legal issue they have.”
The Veterans Advocacy Clinic is run by third-year law students looking for an opportunity to gain real world experience while serving veterans in the process. The current class is made up of seven students, including in-state native Tyler Gordon of Beckley.
“As a student on the team, we kind of do the legwork in the cases,” Gordon said. “Whatever it may be, we work alongside the veteran to make sure we get their goals accomplished.”
“This clinic makes an impact on the state of West Virginia because we have so many veterans,” he continued. “It’s one of the only free legal services that can be provided to these veterans. Without it, I’m not sure what other options they would have or where else they would go. To be able to provide resources to them is something I’ve been excited about and love doing. My father was in the military, so it has always meant a lot to me.”
Student attorney Mitch Duckworth is the only veteran on the clinic team – the Alabama native commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army National Guard while earning his undergraduate degree from Jacksonville State University.
“Everyone wants to help veterans until it’s time to help veterans,” Duckworth said. “I saw the opportunity to start helping my brothers and sisters as soon as I could, so I jumped on that.”
The need for that legal assistance in West Virginia is significant with over 147,000 veterans living in the Mountain State as recently as 2018.
“Veterans with a disability in West Virginia is at 38 percent – that’s the highest in the nation,” Duckworth said. “West Virginia veterans also face 10 percent poverty, which is also the highest in the nation. West Virginia veterans have an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, which is the sixth highest. This clinic is set up to help those.”
“These veterans carried the torch of freedom and it’s only fair that what they’ve earned is given to them,” he continued. “That’s why this clinic is so important.”
It’s donor support, though, that has been the lifeblood for the clinic with the annual budget of $20,000 entirely funded by private donations. A few of the major contributors include the law firm Wooton, Davis, Hussell & Ellis, PLLC along with the Jeremy C. McCamic Family Foundation and the Michael Late Benedum Chapter of the American Association of Professional Landmen.
“The Veterans Advocacy Clinic relies on our donors to continue operation,” Nolan said. “For every dollar we receive from the donors, not only are you ensuring that veterans are getting access to legal services that they just aren’t getting in the private practice, but also you are ensuring our next generation of attorneys are trained well and trained with a service oriented focus."
Donations to the Veterans Advocacy Clinic are made via the WVU Foundation , the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.