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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2013

Speaker(s): Amy N. Fairweather, Bradford Adams, John Robert Unruh, Katherine Dwight, Michael Blecker, Nicole M. Perez, Starlyn Lara, Teresa Panepinto, Theresa Mesa
Recorded on: Nov. 1, 2013
PLI Program #: 43451

Katie Dwight is Senior Staff Attorney of Swords to Plowshares, an organization that provides free legal assistance to veterans seeking VA benefits and military discharge reviews. She has worked with Swords to Plowshares for 8 ½ years in which she has provided direct legal services to hundreds of homeless and low income veterans.  In addition, she helped develop and deliver a training program for new employees at County Veterans Service Offices’ state-wide.  Katie received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and her law degree, specializing in public interest law, the University of California, Davis, CA.

Bradford Adams is the Staff Attorney & Manager of Direct Legal Services at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non-profit that provides legal aid, housing, and social services to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. He assists veterans seeking eligibility and services from the VA, and manages the direct legal services activity. He was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1998 to 2007, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2002-2003 with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion, Army Special Operations Command. After separation from service, Bradford worked as a humanitarian aid worker for three years in refugee camps in Sudan, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2012 and is a member of the State Bar of California.

Starlyn Lara served nearly twelve years on active duty in the US Army from 1995-2007, during her service she achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant (SSG-E6) and was assigned to multiple duty stations as well as deployments that included Bosnia during Operation Joint Forge and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  She was awarded the Combat Action Badge and two Meritorious Service Medals for her service.  She understands the impact of combat and the struggle to adapt to life as a civilian.  Upon completion of her active duty commitment, she pursued a degree from California State University East Bay where she achieved a BA in Business Management with an emphasis in Organizational Communication.  Ms. Lara now serves as the Women Veteran Program Manager and Community Educator and Outreach Program Manager for the San Francisco based veterans service organization; Swords to Plowshares.  Swords to Plowshares’ Institute for Veteran Policy (IVP) developed Combat to Community training, a series of curriculum on cultural competency developed for community partners, including clinicians, faith-based communities, law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals, to address the challenges veterans face re-integrating into the community.

Teresa Panepinto

Teresa Panepinto
is the Legal Director of Swords to Plowshares, an organization that provides free legal assistance to veterans seeking VA benefits and military discharge reviews.  Prior to attending law school, she coordinated the nationwide GI Rights Hotline, providing legal information to military servicemembers.  A long-time member of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, she served on its Steering Committee from 2004-2009.  She has extensive experience training attorneys, legal workers, and law students on military and veterans law.  She received her undergraduate degree from Willamette University and her law degree from UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law.

Theresa Mesa is a Program Developer in the Office of Legal Services at the State Bar of California.  The Office of Legal Services works to improve the delivery of legal services to low-income Californians; works with stakeholders to expand access to justice in courts and administrative agencies; provides grants to legal aid programs and works to expand available legal aid resources.  Theresa is also the staff liaison to the State Bar Pro Bono Coordinating Committee and a graduate of Stanford Law School.

Amy Fairweather directs Swords to Plowshares Institute for Veteran Policy (IVP) which conducts public policy research regarding veterans’ health, access to benefits and socioeconomic well-being. She has worked in the field of public health policy, in particular, with and for trauma survivors, since 1999. Ms. Fairweather oversees Swords to Plowshares Combat to Community™ education and technical assistance and re-granting programs.

Amy Fairweather received her undergraduate degree from Mills College and her juris doctor from the Hastings College of the Law. She is a member of State Bar of California.

John is an attorney based in San Francisco, CA with a practice focused on disability and family law.  Before opening his own law office he was a Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares, a nationally recognized veterans' rights organization in San Francisco, CA. Prior to assisting veterans with their disability benefits claims John was an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, representing public housing and low-income tenants in eviction proceedings and assisting his clients in accessing and preserving affordable housing.  A regular presenter throughout the Bay Area, John has spoken on topics that have included the criminal justice system’s role in ending homelessness and the VA disability benefits process. John serves on the board of directors of the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (BALIF), and he is also an AIDS Legal Referral Panel attorney.

John received his J.D. from The Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law and has a B.A. in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley. He is licensed to practice law in California and Hawaii and is a Department of Veterans Affairs Accredited Service Representative.

Michael Blecker has been associated with Swords to Plowshares since 1976, only two years after its founding in 1974 by a group of Vietnam veterans and VISTA volunteers at the Veterans Administration in San Francisco. He began as a staff attorney and was dedicated to helping veterans access their VA benefits. After a three-year struggle, Swords to Plowshares was granted recognition from the VA in 1978 to represent veterans seeking benefits and in 1979, he won one of the first PTSD cases and helped develop the Agent Orange Self-Help Guide.  In 1982, Mr. Blecker became Executive Director, guiding the agency from its small grassroots origins to one with a continuum of specialized services and an annual budget of nearly $20 million. 

Mr. Blecker has a nationwide reputation for dedicated service and as an authority on veterans’ services and veterans’ rights. He served on the Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans (2002-2007) which advises the Secretary; he is co-founder of both the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the California Association of Veterans’ Service Agencies. He has served on the Congressional Commission on Service Members and Veterans Transition Assistance, the California Senate Commission on Homeless Veterans, the San Francisco Mayor’s Homeless Planning Committee, the National Agent Orange Settlement Advisory Board, the Agent Orange Information Center, and the Veterans Speakers Alliance. In 2015 he was appointed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to serve on the federal Commission on Care, examining veteran access to VA care.

Mr. Blecker served in the U.S. Army combat infantry in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. He holds a J.D. degree from New College of California School of Law (1980) and a B.A. degree with honors from UC Berkeley (1974).


Nicole is the managing attorney of the Veterans Justice Center at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firms that protects and advances the rights of the most underserved – leveling the playing field and ensuring that everyone can have access to the justice system.  Every year, LAFLA provides free, high-quality legal services to more than 100,000 people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA’s Veterans Justice Center advocates for  Veterans to obtain life-sustaining income, health, and housing benefits, and rebuild their lives through our full scope of critical legal services.  We believe that all Veterans deserve a steady source of income, a safe and stable home, and access to the healthcare that they need to thrive. We also believe that Veterans who have tickets, criminal convictions, and less-than-honorable discharges deserve a fresh start.  LAFLA’s unique combination of neighborhood offices, self-help centers at courthouses, and domestic violence clinics puts LAFLA on the front lines in vulnerable communities, and at the forefront of change.

As a disabled woman from a marginalized Latino community, Nicole has dedicated her career to fighting for economic and racial justice. At LAFLA, Nicole works passionately alongside advocates and Veterans themselves to secure government benefits, prevent Veteran homelessness and access civil justice. With a law degree and Masters in Social Work, Nicole practices holistic advocacy for Veterans and their families, utilizing the support of pro bono, community, and social service partners. Nicole obtained her graduate degrees in Law and Social Work from UCLA, her undergraduate degrees in Social Welfare and Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley, and her “degree” in life skills from her kind and hardworking single father Fred Perez. Nicole began her legal career as a Skadden Fellow in homelessness and government benefits advocacy at LAFLA. She founded the first Veterans law school clinic in Los Angeles at Loyola Law School in 2010 and currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Legal Issues Committee of the LSC Veterans Task Force.