Every Veterans Day, we take time to reflect on ways to honor the sacrifices of Washington’s approximately 600,000 veterans, 60,000 active duty service members and 2,000,000 affected family members.
These brave women and men who put on the uniform swear an oath to support and defend our country and Constitution. We, in turn, owe it to them to support and defend their rights, too.
Military service can create a number of situations necessitating a legal advocate. A commitment to defend our county can carry financial or health care challenges that require navigating the complex federal bureaucracy to receive earned benefits.
Deployment — and increasingly multiple deployments — can create legal problems implicating family law. Issues such as physical and cognitive disabilities, employment discrimination and predatory lending all have a legal component that can exacerbate the challenges veterans face.
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Legal issues make it harder for veterans to integrate into civilian society, find employment and enroll in educational opportunities. A recent report on the civil legal needs of Washington’s low-income community found that military members and veterans experience higher incidences of complex legal problems than the general population.
Unfortunately, when our veterans and military families need legal protection or assistance, help isn’t always available.
While armed forces attorneys work in legal assistance offices on military installations, the American Bar Association recognizes that these attorneys cannot provide the full range of legal help our service members need.
Similarly, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that legal help is a significant, unmet need of homeless and low-income veterans — but the VA does not provide legal services.
Our legal system — the constitutional system these fine women and men protect — fails when it does not meet their needs.
Washington state must invest more in civil legal assistance for our current and former military personnel. Every veteran deserves the opportunity to make a successful transition to civilian life. That’s why the attorney general and veterans in the legal community are urging lawmakers in Olympia to take action this upcoming legislative session to meet this need.
We propose creating an Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance within the Attorney General’s Office. The office is patterned after a successful model in Nevada that helped address more than 200 legal matters in its first year.
Our proposal allows the attorney general to recruit, train and organize volunteer attorneys, building on existing programs to better promote and facilitate legal services. As chief legal officer for the state, the attorney general can build capacity and serve as a clearinghouse to ensure veterans and military families find the trusted legal help they need.
Every Veterans Day, we come together to thank the men and women who have served our country. We must also work to remove barriers for transitioning veterans, end veteran homelessness and honor our aging veterans.
Enlisting the Attorney General’s Office to mobilize the legal community and leverage ongoing work across the state is a cost-effective way to achieve these goals.
Bob Ferguson is Washington’s attorney general. John M. Tymczyszyn is legislative director of the Washington State Veterans Bar Association.