By Kathleen Borschow, J.D. ’15
I wanted to be involved in clinical work as early into law school as possible, so I joined Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights my 1L fall year. I was assigned to the International Human Rights Clinic’s Right to Heal Project, which sought to bring attention to and seek justice for veterans suffering from the “invisible wounds of war.” It was my first experience working on veterans’ issues, and I was deeply troubled. When it was time to enroll in a clinic my 2L year, the Veterans Legal Clinic was an easy choice.
Under the supervision of Clinical Professor of Law Daniel Nagin and Clinical Fellow Betsy Gwin, students in the clinic get to work on various types of cases. I helped veterans seeking a discharge upgrade, which can be crucial for eligibility to receive medical and educational benefits as well as basic employment. I guided them through the challenges in navigating the vast VA bureaucracy: requesting and waiting for records from various entities, submitting claims to remote decision makers, understanding the sometimes complex procedural posture of their claims, and waiting months—or years—for a decision. I also assisted an unemployed veteran appealing termination of Massachusetts’ public assistance program for indigent and disabled veterans. Although we were unable to represent him, I advised him on how better to advocate for himself in a system that seems unsympathetic and unfair to unrepresented claimants.
I spent half of my semester working on an appeal brief to the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims challenging a denial of VA disability benefits for post-traumatic stress as a result of military sexual trauma. One in three military women is sexually assaulted, and one in five women veterans will develop post-traumatic stress (PTS) as a result of military sexual trauma and other traumatic experiences while in service. Few of these women can successfully access the VA healthcare system, disability benefits, or educational loans to receive the assistance they so desperately need to rebuild their lives post-service. This leads tens of thousands of women veterans into poverty and homelessness—many are single mothers, and suicide rates are staggering.
As is all too common in cases of military sexual trauma, our client had not sought treatment or applied for benefits until decades after her separation from the military during the Vietnam Era. Working with Dan, Betsy, and two other clinical students, we appealed the Board of Veterans Appeals’ decision denying her claim. Our brief was wholly successful: opposing counsel did not file an opposition brief and instead made our client an excellent settlement offer. After decades of neglect by an unfair system, with our help, our client finally attained a measure of justice—and an opportunity for income assistance—she so needs and deserves. It was unquestionably my most meaningful experience in law school.