- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The new legal aid clinic for military veterans at Syracuse University College of Law has taken on dozens of appeals of denied benefits and less than honorable discharges.

The free clinic began handling cases this year, established by two graduates, both now in the military, to meet the large unmet need they saw.

It has 64 current cases and another 84 awaiting records from the Veterans Administration and service branches, director Yelena Duterte said.

Most clients are from upstate New York, though it’s open to any veteran, Duterte said. “Because of the need, I’ve opened up the geography,” she said.

There are 35 other clinics at law schools around the U.S. that focus on veterans, ranging from Yale in Connecticut to Baylor in Texas and including the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In Syracuse, the new clinic has also referred many veterans to the law school’s clinics that handle family, criminal and other legal issues.

“They helped me get the honorable (discharge) back for Joey,” said Cathy Schillaci of Rome. Her son left the Army in 2013 addicted to opiates after three years, five months and 14 days of service, and kept the problem hidden at first, she said.

He had been given 14 painkiller prescriptions over two years in the military for a hernia, sprained ankle and back issues, she said.

Now the 28-year-old will be able to get veterans’ benefits when he leaves state prison. He began a six-year sentence last year, convicted of stealing to support his addiction.

“He’s going to need all the help he can get to return to normal life,” Cathy Schillaci said. “There are so many of our soldiers that came home addicted. … They deserve to get into rehab.”

Joseph Schillaci’s appeal of his discharge was handled by Syracuse law student Charles DiNunzio who reviewed thousands of his documents, requesting from the Department of Veterans Affairs a so-called character of service determination. The appeal emphasized his good service and mitigating factors that led to a failed drug test and administrative discharge.

“I just think that sometimes we forget that bureaucracy has a real human cost,” DiNunzio said. It’s also difficult for veterans to navigate the system alone, he said. He has since graduated and is in the process of joining the Navy.

Funded with a state and county grants and private donations, the Veterans Legal Clinic currently has 10 law students assigned four cases each, up from eight students its first semester.

The clinic was founded by 2014 law school graduates Tom Caruso and Josh Keefe, who have since returned to active duty as judge advocates for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Since it began, the Syracuse clinic has been contacted by more than 350 veterans, with 231 cases referred either to other clinics, a pro bono lawyer or non-profit agency, university spokeswoman Ellen Mbuqe said. Ten of its own cases have been decided by the VA, with seven resulting in combined awards of $133,000 in back pay for veterans who will also get access to VA health benefits and preference points for federal employment.

Three cases have been denied and are being appealed, Mbuqe said. Following the longest sustained period of military conflict in U.S. history, many veterans are coming home with financial, medical and legal issues, which she said are intertwined.

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