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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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.