In recognition of Veterans Day, we’re revisiting this lightly updated story from July 4, 2014.
A huge number of military veterans return from war and find a different kind of struggle awaiting them at home. Mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and other impediments to rejoining civilian life—like military training deemed non-transferrable to domestic employments—can be isolating and disenfranchising.
But Connecticut’s veterans are luckier than most. They have a small but potent ally in West Haven: the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which keeps an office at VA Connecticut’s Errera Community Care Center at 114 Boston Post Road. Established in September 2009, the CVLC was the first organization to “integrate legal services with VA [Veterans Affairs] care,” according to executive director Margaret Middleton. Helping veterans find a job, a place to live and good healthcare, the CVLC has served nearly 2,000 “clients”—the word Middleton uses, though none of the veterans are billed—and it has also had an impact at the legislative level, working with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School to draft two bills passed into law by the state legislature. One helps veterans receive rehabilitative sentences for low-level crimes; the other ensures that military training is given due credit by state employers and educational institutions.
Paradoxically, a veteran’s needs tend to be both unique and basic, requiring careful, competent handling, and the CVLC’s genesis began several years ago with a retired lawyer named Howard Udell, who found himself filling that role by accident. He started out simply volunteering at the Errera Center; then people in the center’s care discovered he’d been an attorney. “Veterans started bringing him their legal questions, and by the time I met him, he’d taken thirty cases just by himself—pro bono, no organizational support,” Middleton marvels. A practicing attorney at the time, Middleton found herself interested in Udell’s work, and wanted to meet with him. By their second meeting, he was asking her to take on a case, and she was doing one better, proposing that they start an actual organization dedicated to this work. One successful grant application later, the CVLC was a reality.
Today, nine full-time employees, including six attorneys, and two part-time employees operate out of an office about the size of a normal apartment bathroom. Of course, they don’t all work in there at the same time; the Errera Center is expansive, so some of them carve out a space here or there. Together they handle “routine legal issues on the path to recovery that all too frequently gets derailed.”
There are still only two other agencies in the country, located in New York City and Los Angeles, that function similarly to the CVLC. Partnering with the VA signals a “new mode of thinking, a cultural shift, because lawyers have traditionally been viewed as the enemy,” Middleton says, adding that “we have been insanely busy since the day we started,” proving the need. With a shoestring budget and no funding from the VA, CVLC is “almost totally dependent on private philanthropy” and can proudly point to more than $2,000,000 worth of legal aid donated by attorneys since it began. The center currently needs volunteers (and will even train them) in finance, publicity and design—plus, of course, paralegals and attorneys. Middleton calls CVLC “a scrappy kind of place that skillfully leverages good will and talents,” even of the veterans themselves.
Former marine Jeremiah was quick to state that the center has encouraged him to help himself. He says the CVLC has “helped me overcome my past mistakes when my life was upside down and I was living in a shelter. I had bankruptcy and probate issues and trouble with housing… This is my second chance.” At the time of these comments, he looked ahead with some optimism to the future, which he hoped would make use of his fascination with the jewelry and jewelry appraisal trade.
Though a close appraisal of Middleton would rate her highly indeed, she doesn’t seem to know it. “My job is the least of it,” she says, giving credit to her team and “an army” of volunteers. She’s focused on the mission: “These are veterans who have taken the step of getting connected to care, who are working on getting stable housing, who are working on getting sober. We’re here to make sure that routine legal issues aren’t the barrier to veterans achieving their goals.”
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.