Posted: May 24th, 2022 | By: Maggie Sandy
Due to the efforts of Veterans Legal Clinic students Allison Spears and Walker Helms, under the supervision of Clinic Director Eleanor Morales, a clinic client now has an Honorable discharge and veteran status under the law.
During the past academic year, Spears and Helms represented an Army soldier who deployed after 9/11 as part of the first conventional forces on the ground in Afghanistan. The client, who lives with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from combat, was court-martialed, sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and discharged with a Bad Conduct Discharge, likely resulting in a lifetime bar from all VA benefits including health care.
When asked about this case, Helms said, “when we talked with our client about the case, they were most excited about the possibility of finally receiving recognition for their service to this country.”
The students conducted a direct exam of an expert witness, a clinical psychologist from Wake Forest Baptist, during an administrative hearing. The expert’s testimony ensured an Army board understood the impact of the client’s mental health conditions on their conduct that led to their court-martial and subsequent discharge.
“I come from a military background, and I am familiar with veteran struggles with mental health,” said Spears, “the clients we interact with in the clinic have been through more trials during their service than most people can fathom.”
The students successfully persuaded the Army board to remove any reference to the court-martial from the client’s military records and to upgrade their discharge to Honorable, thereby removing the debilitating discharge related bar to VA benefits.
Only requiring a majority vote, the students’ persuasive advocacy skills resulted in the board issuing a unanimous decision to grant full relief.
“This case gives me hope for the future,” said Spears when asked about the success of this particular case, “it shows that the military is changing its ideas of mental health, and veterans in the future won’t be afraid to ask for the help they need.”
Spears and Helms have learned and practiced skills they will utilize in their future legal careers. Specifically, the students conducted extensive fact investigation, collaborated with mental health experts, interviewed and counseled their client through direct-client representation, drafted a brief after extensive legal research and advocated for their client in a live-hearing.
“This case has given me confidence and a chance to see my strongest skills at play,” said Helms, “Through mine and Allison’s teamwork and communication, we were able to excel inside the courtroom and with our client and expert witness.”
The client’s life has been forever changed for the better due to the students’ hard work. When asked about their experiences with the clinic, the client, tearfully, summarized it in one word: “redemption.”
Wake Forest Law’s Veterans Legal Clinic creates opportunities for students to work closely with former service members under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Students learn transferable lawyering skills through a multidisciplinary and trauma-informed approach while providing critical assistance to low-income former service members to correct injustices in their records. Students collaborate with their peers and medical experts, develop interviewing and counseling skills through direct-client representation, and conduct extensive fact investigation.