Skip to main content

Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2017


Speaker(s): Barbara Saavedra, Cathy Wong, Devin Bissman, Margaret Kuzma, Nicole M. Perez, Rose Carmen Goldberg, RoseMarie Maliekel, Shannon Kissinger
Recorded on: Nov. 13, 2017
PLI Program #: 181022

Shannon Kissinger is a Policy Associate with Swords to Plowshares with a Masters in Social Work from Humboldt State University and bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in foreign policy. Shannon has extensive experience in veteran policy concentrating on macro solutions to veteran issues. Shannon presents Combat to Community® cultural competency curriculum and provides outreach and technical assistance to other community-based veteran services agencies.

Shannon worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a Social Worker dealing specifically with homeless veterans, infectious disease, and medical practice. Shannon has also worked for numerous veteran non-profits and managed geriatric and senior services for clients. Shannon spent five years in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee and is a service-connected disabled veteran.


Cathy Wong is the Staff Attorney & Pro Bono Manager 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. Prior to joining Swords, she represented homeless and low-income veterans as the Veterans Project Attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid and as a Staff Attorney at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. Before working in poverty law, she practiced corporate and securities law at Mayer Brown's New York office. She is a graduate of St. John's University School of Law and is a member of the New York and Connecticut State Bars.


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.


RoseMarie Maliekel received her J.D. from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in 2010 and is a staff attorney at Swords to Plowshares. While at Northwestern, RoseMarie focused her studies on Criminal Defense, Capital Defense, and Trial Advocacy. Upon graduating, RoseMarie worked as a trial attorney for the Federal Defenders of San Diego where she sat first chair in five federal jury trials, second chaired numerous others, and handled hundreds of federal felony cases. At Swords to Plowshares, she divides her time between providing comprehensive direct assistance to at-risk veterans and developing a practice manual to be used as a guide for veterans and their representatives in discharge upgrade cases. In her spare time, RoseMarie enjoys hiking with her German shepherd, Diego.


Barbara Saavedra is a Senior Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non- profit organization that provides case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her background includes complex civil and criminal litigation and a specialty in the development and presentation of evidence related to PTSD and other mental health conditions.


Margaret Kuzma is the Director of Discharge Upgrade Practice at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. In addition to her work at CVLC, Margaret taught as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School from 2016 to 2017. Prior to CVLC, she worked as a Skadden Fellow attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, Illinois where she served low-income veterans and military families. Before becoming a public interest attorney, Margaret worked as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Fort Benning and USAG Baumholder. Margaret received her J.D. from DePaul University and her B.A. from Brown University. She is admitted to practice law in Connecticut and Illinois.


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 the first place thousands of people who have low-income turn to when they need legal assistance for a crisis that threatens their safety, security or shelter. We take care of the most vulnerable people in our community: people who are unhoused, unemployed, working poor, domestic abuse survivors, victims of torture and human trafficking, elderly, disabled, and Veterans of Los Angeles, by providing free life-saving legal services. We also provide free legal education, outreach, and self-help assistance to litigants and community members, allowing for additional access to justice. Founded in 1929, LAFLA celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and continues to strive to achieve equal justice and address systemic poverty through direct representation, impact litigation, and community empowerment. With five neighborhood offices, three domestic violence clinics and four self-help legal access centers, LAFLA serves communities as diverse as East Los Angeles, the Westside, South Los Angeles, Pico-Union and Long Beach.

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 Veterans with low-income and/or disabilities to advocate for 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 is also an Adjunct Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School where she founded and continues to teach a veterans justice practicum to upper-level law students.


Rose Carmen Goldberg is a Supervising Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares and a Lecturer at Berkeley Law School. She is the legal director of a Medical-Legal Partnership with the Oakland Vet Center, a partnership that integrates legal services and mental health treatment for veterans. Her background includes health policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, legislative assistance at the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Native American affairs at the White House.