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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2020


Speaker(s): Amy Rose, Christal R. Bundang, Holly L. Christian, Margaret Kuzma, Maureen Siedor, Megan O'Leary, Michael Blecker, Millie VandenBroek, Nicole M. Perez, Tyler Solorio, Victor Inzunza
Recorded on: Oct. 30, 2020
PLI Program #: 274970

Amy Rose is the Managing 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. Prior to her work at Swords, Ms. Rose was the Legal Director at the ACLU of Nevada where she fought for the civil rights and liberties of Nevadans though impact litigation, policy advocacy, and community education  Ms. Rose also spent several years practicing plaintiff-side employment law, advocating on behalf of employees facing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. She holds a J.D from the College of William & Mary and a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from the University of California, Davis. She is a member of the State Bar of Nevada.


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 B.A. in Journalism from San Diego State University and is currently pursuing her M.B.A. from San Francisco State University.


Holly L. Christian is the Pro Bono Manager and Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares. She previously worked for the American Bar Association where she served as the Veterans Pro Bono Coordinator and Chief Counsel to the Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law and Coordinating Committee on Veterans Benefits and Services. Holly is a graduate of DePaul University College of Law and the University of Dayton. Holly also holds multiple leadership roles in Phi Alpha Delta, a professional law fraternity. She is barred in Illinois.


Margaret Kuzma is the Director of the Veterans Inclusion Project at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.  She has taught as a visiting clinical lecturer with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, and co-founded the Veterans Law Project at Quinnipiac University School of Law. Most recently, Margaret co-authored the Discharge Upgrade Legal Practice Manual, a legal treatise on upgrading military discharges, with the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School.

Margaret 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 College of Law and her B.A. from Brown University.  She is admitted to practice law in Connecticut and Illinois.


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.


Megan O’Leary is the Shartsis Friese LLP Public Interest Fellow at Swords to Plowshares.  Her fellowship is focused on providing direct legal services to veterans who are involved with the justice system.  Megan works with veterans who are currently incarcerated, involved with the San Francisco Veterans Justice Court, and other justice-involved veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and Saint Mary’s College of California.


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).

 


Millie VandenBroek serves as Policy Counsel and Discharge Upgrade Attorney at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She served previously as CVLC’s Howard R. Udell Fellow in Veterans Justice specializing in VA benefits law. Millie has taught in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer. Prior to joining CVLC, she worked as an Assistant Public Defender in Baltimore City’s Mental Health Court, in the litigation department of a large firm, and as the director of an early-intervention children’s mental health initiative. Millie holds a JD from Georgetown University Law Center and an MPH from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.


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.


Tyler Solorio is a Policy Analyst with Swords to Plowshares. He provides outreach and technical assistance to community-based veteran services agencies, presents Combat to Community® cultural competency curriculum, and conducts research on an array of veterans’ issues. Tyler graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public policy studies from DePaul University.

Tyler spent six years in the U.S. Army National Guard. He is an OEF veteran who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He has served as an advocate for veterans’ educational and mental health services. Tyler is also a former board member on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, where he helped spearhead veterans’ education issues at the state level.


Victor Inzunza is a Policy Analyst with Swords to Plowshares. He presents Combat to Community® cultural competency curriculum and provides outreach and technical assistance to other community-based veteran services agencies. Victor graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English from University of the Pacific and earned his MFA in writing from University of San Francisco.

Victor spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is an OIF veteran who served two tours of duty in 2003 and 2004. He has been active in the veteran community since 2008, focusing on access to education for California veterans. He served as president for the Student Veterans of America chapter at University of the Pacific.