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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2014

Speaker(s): Becca von Behren, Devin Bissman, Kate Richardson, Nicole M. Perez, Starlyn Lara, Teresa Panepinto
Recorded on: Nov. 10, 2014
PLI Program #: 50202

Becca von Behren is a staff attorney at the Homeless Action Center, an organization in Berkeley, CA which provides free public benefits advocacy to people who are homeless and mentally ill in Alameda County. In addition to helping clients obtain sustainable income and health insurance, HAC also works with community stakeholders to reduce the harms associated with a lack of housing and healthcare. Combining professionalism and compassion, HAC provides barrier-free legal assistance to the hardest to reach populations. Prior to working at HAC, Becca worked at Swords to Plowshares, an organization in San Francisco, CA which provides free legal assistance to veterans seeking VA benefits and military discharge upgrades.  Before Swords to Plowshares, Becca was a Skadden Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates using impact litigation and legal advocacy to ensure that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with mental illness receive appropriate medical services and benefits. Becca currently serves on the Steering Committee of the NLG’s Military Law Task Force and is a member of the Bay Area Military Law Panel.  Becca was the first ally board member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and is active in its ally organization, Civilian Soldier Alliance.

Devin Bissman is a Staff Attorney 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. During his time at Swords to Plowshares, Devin has assisted over two dozen veterans obtain VA benefits or previously denied access to VA health care. Prior to his transition to Staff Attorney, he was an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Swords to Plowshares. As a fellow, his work focused primarily on assistance National Guard and Reserve veterans. Devin served as an infantryman in the Army National Guard from 2006 to 2012. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan as a security team member for a provincial reconstruction team in the western province of Farah Afghanistan. Devin graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law in 2014 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.

Kate Richardson is the Legal Director at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non-profit organization that provides case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. As Legal Director, Kate oversees the legal services unit and pro bono program, which provide free legal assistance to veterans in their VA benefits claims and military discharge upgrade applications. Her experience in disability rights work includes direct services, policy advocacy, and community lawyering approaches. Prior to joining Swords to Plowshares, she worked on access to justice issues at an international legal empowerment organization. She holds a J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law and a B.A. from the University of Michigan. She is a member of the State Bar of California.

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.