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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2021


Speaker(s): Amy Rose, Deepa Arora, Elizabeth A. Hom, Margaret Kuzma, Maureen Siedor, Michael Blecker, Millie VandenBroek, Nicole M. Perez, Olivia B. Cole, Tyler Solorio, Victor Inzunza
Recorded on: Nov. 3, 2021
PLI Program #: 305361

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.


Deepa currently represents veterans in their VA benefits claims and military discharge upgrade applications as a Staff Attorney and Interim Pro Bono Manager at Swords to Plowshares. Previously, she worked as the Supervising Attorney in the GAL for Adults Program at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. During that time, Deepa served as both a Guardian ad litem and attorney for adults with disabilities while assisting in the training and management of pro bono volunteer attorneys working with the agency. Deepa graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in 2015 with service honors. During law school, Deepa served as the Co-Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Social Policy. She also interned for Legal Aid Chicago in the Public Benefits Division, interned for Ascend Justice in their Order of Protection and Family Law Divisions, and participated in the Death Penalty Criminal Defense clinic and the Pre-Trial Representation and Corrections Policy clinic at the Bluhm Legal Clinic. Before law school, Deepa received a graduate social work degree from the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago with a focus on non-profit management, community organizing, and policy development.


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.

 



Tyler Solorio is a Policy Analyst with Swords to Plowshares. They provide outreach and technical assistance to community-based veteran service agencies, present Combat to Community cultural curriculum, and conduct research on an array of veterans’ issues. They graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Studies from DePaul University. Tyler spent six years in the U.S. Army National Guard. They are an OEF veteran who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.


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.


Elizabeth A. Hom is a Program Manager at the State Bar of California, Office of Access & Inclusion, where she advances and supports diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across the State Bar and oversees access to justice activities, including grants administration and policy work to improve access to justice, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession.  

Prior to joining the State Bar, from 2015-2017, Elizabeth served as Pro Bono Counsel at Bay Area Legal Aid, where she managed the firm’s pro bono projects portfolio, which reached across a seven county region. From 2004-2015, Elizabeth served in various roles at the Alameda County Bar Association (ACBA,) including as Director of Access Programs, where she oversaw both the pro bono program and the lawyer referral service. Elizabeth has worked extensively on board relations, board development, and strategic planning, and is a graduate of the OneJustice Executive Fellowship Program for Nonprofit Management. She has served on the board of directors for Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), and on the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Standards Review Team.

Elizabeth holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Legal Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Juris Doctor and a Masters in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. 


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).

 


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.


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.