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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades, Veteran Cultural Competency, and Marginalized Veteran Populations 2019

Speaker(s): Amy N. Fairweather, Margaret Kuzma, Maureen Siedor, Michael Blecker, Mikayla Pentecost, Nicole M. Perez, Olivia B. Cole, RoseMarie Maliekel
Recorded on: Nov. 1, 2019
PLI Program #: 249009

Olivia Cole is the Deputy Legal Director at Swords to Plowshares. Prior to her current role she began her career with Swords to Plowshares as a Skadden Fellow, where she established the Women Veterans Legal Advocacy Project, which conducts outreach and provides legal services tailored to the unique needs of women veterans. Olivia is also a Lecturer at Berkeley Law where she teaches the Veterans Law Practicum and Seminar. She holds a J.D. from Duke University School of Law and a B.A. from Indiana University. She is a member of the State Bar of California.

Margaret Kuzma is an Attorney in the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and a lead author of the Military Discharge Upgrade Legal Practice Manual (ABA, 2021). Previously, she directed the Veterans Inclusion Project and the Discharge Upgrade Practice at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She has been a Visiting Clinical Lecturer with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, and she co-founded the Veterans Law Project at Quinnipiac University School of Law. Prior to becoming a public interest attorney, Ms. Kuzma ran the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program for Fort Benning and U.S. Army Garrison Baumholder.


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.

Maureen “Mo” Siedor directs Swords to Plowshares’ Legal Services Unit which provides assistance and legal representation to homeless and low-income veterans on their veterans’ benefits and military discharge upgrade cases. She originally joined Swords’ legal team in 2014.

Prior to serving as Legal Director, Mo worked at the Center for Veterans’ Advancement at Public Counsel and the Homeless Veterans Project of Inner City Law Center. She began her legal careers as a staff attorney at DNA-People’s Legal Services providing legal assistance to victims of domestic violence on the Navajo Nation.

She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and Barnard College of Columbia University, and is a member of the State Bars of California and Colorado.

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).


Mikayla Pentecost is the Veterans’ Benefits Attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, where she oversees the Sonoma County Veterans Medical Legal Partnership (MLP), which partners with the North Bay Vet Center to provide integrated legal services to Sonoma County veterans. Mikayla’s practice primarily involves assisting veterans with mental health conditions to obtain discharge upgrades and service-connected compensation benefits. She holds a J.D. from William & Mary Law School and a B.A. from Siena College. 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.

RoseMarie Maliekel is the new Supervising Attorney for The Federal Pro Bono Project (Fed Pro) at the Justice & Diversity Center of The Bar Association of San Francisco. Fed Pro serves both pro se litigants and the Court by providing direct services on a limited scope basis at its court-based Legal Help Centers and also by connecting pro se litigants to attorneys who accept appointment on a pro bono basis.   She received her J.D. with special recognition for outstanding commitment to public service from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in 2010.  While at Northwestern, RoseMarie focused her studies on Criminal Defense, Capital Habeas, 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. She was also responsible for supervising and training new attorneys.  Most recently, Ms. Maliekel was the Woodruff Foundation Fellow at Swords to Plowshares, where she divided her time between providing comprehensive direct assistance to at-risk veterans and assisting in the development of a practice manual to be used as a guide for veterans and their representatives in discharge upgrade cases. In her spare time, RoseMarie enjoys camping and hiking with her German Shepherd, Diego.