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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, Christal R. Bundang, Margaret Kuzma, Maureen Siedor, Michael Blecker, Mikayla Pentecost, Nicole M. Perez, Olivia B. Cole, RoseMarie Maliekel
Recorded on: Nov. 1, 2019
PLI Program #: 249009

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.


Christal R. Bundang is a Senior Program Analyst at the State Bar of California, Office of Access & Inclusion where she is responsible for grant administration and works with the legal services community and stakeholders to develop and support policy to promote access to justice and diversity and inclusion in profession. She is the staff lead for increasing access to veterans legal services in California, which includes identifying key resources, engaging stakeholders and encouraging veterans pro bono work. Christal received her A.S. in Paralegal Studies from Miramar College and B.A. in Journalism from San Diego State University.


Margaret Kuzma is the Director of Discharge Upgrade Practice at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.  In addition to her work at CVLC, Margaret has taught as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. She started her legal career 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.


Maureen Siedor is the Interim Legal Director 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 her work at Swords, she was 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, and 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 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.


Olivia Cole is a Supervising Staff Attorney and former Skadden Fellow with 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. She also directs the Women Veterans Legal Advocacy Project, which conducts outreach and provides legal services tailored to the unique needs of women veterans. 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.


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.