The Gould School of Law has partnered with the Veterans Legal Institute to manage a Los Angeles-based legal clinic that serves veterans.
The VLI is the only legal aid in the country that exclusively helps low-income veterans and members of the military, while operating as a nonprofit organization funded primarily by donations and grants. The institute receives applications from low-income veterans and works to meet their needs.
“We get approximately 10 applications on a daily basis, over 70 per week,” said Dwight Stirling, the institute’s CEO. “The number of applications we’ve been receiving are on an upward trajectory. We assist every veteran that applies to us.”
Stirling is a Gould alumnus and said he believes that the collaboration with the law school benefits the surrounding community, as well as USC students. The VLI decided to branch out to Los Angeles due to the larger population of veterans within the city, along with working with USC.
“The partnership between the VLI and the campus is a big deal,” Stirling said. “It allows law students to obtain an educational foundation while helping those that served our country.”
Stirling explained that working with veterans fosters an unparalleled experience for employees and student associates.
“What makes us unique is the fact that we primarily help veterans, and over time, we learn to speak their language,” Stirling said. “When folks come here, they are talking to people that understand them. When they talk to people that understand where they come from, they tend to open up.”
Michael Su, a graduate law student, who worked at the institute over the summer, felt his perspective on the veteran community expanded through his work.
“The whole point of this partnership is to bring people in so that they can see and engage in a community that they are otherwise disconnected from,” Su said. “There is a real need among the veteran community. It was incumbent on me to use what I know to help a community that I have a very personal connection with.”
Su notes this opportunity exists even for students who aren’t pursuing a formal law school education.
The VLI addresses a wide variety of client interests and works to resolve issues that involve multiple facets of the law. The institute primarily serves young military veterans who are in the process of assimilating to the civilian world.
“We provide assistance with many complications you would see in the life of a normal young person,” Stirling said. “This includes family law, child support, disputes with employers and issues regarding debt or eviction. These are the low-level civil disputes that young people tend to have, and if they can’t find legal aid, these disputes can develop into larger problems.”
Despite institutions and practices in place to assist veterans, Stirling believes that the problems manifested today are rooted in systemic failures to seek and preemptively address issues that affect U.S. servicemembers.
“We as a nation are recruiting our young people to serve in the military, and it tends to be people that don’t necessarily have other opportunities,” Stirling said. “They go to the military to gain experience and eventually make use of educational opportunities provided by the GI bill.”
However, Stirling explained that a number of these servicemembers come from a lower socioeconomic background. Many come back from service faced with residual trauma, he said.
“They are the tip of the spear on the war on terror, and a lot of our veterans, experience trauma — trauma that you sustain doesn’t go away,” Stirling said.
PTSD is a common byproduct of exposure to severe trauma without treatment, according to Stirling. Far too often, self-help methods including drugs and alcohol are used in an attempt to alleviate psychological pain. When these methods are employed, many servicemembers fail drug tests, preventing them from receiving an honorable discharge.
The VLI works closely with veterans to petition for a discharge upgrade; such an upgrade is described by Stirling as restorative and redemptive.
Technical matters aside, the VLI provides solace within the veteran community.
“The most important part of this work is being able to simply listen,” Stirling said. “The veterans that ask for our help often have a very pressing need and are looking for people to hear them out. This is the law at its most basic and fundamental level. Somebody has a problem, and we get to fix it.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that servicemembers that fail drug tests are prevented from receiving an other-than-honorable discharge. Actually, they are prevented from receiving an honorable discharge. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.