Veterans Advocacy Clinic Provides New Hope for Montana Vets

Through legal representation, legal consultation and outreach, the Blewett School of Law’s in-house Veteran’s Advocacy Clinic (VAC) accounts for long-term impacts of military service on disabled or improperly discharged Montana veterans.

By holding systems that are designed to support veterans accountable, the VAC ensures appropriate income support for disabled veterans and their families, adequate and competent healthcare to veterans recovering from physical and mental trauma, and knowledge and control over personal military histories.                                                                                               

A recent client of the VAC, John Smith*, said he had joined the military to be a part of something bigger than himself and felt he had a lot to be proud of over the course of his service.

“I was doing stuff to protect my country, and people were safe because I was playing my part,” said Smith.

Like many veterans who served in the Middle East, Smith returned home with a collection of chronic physical and mental health symptoms, sometimes referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, that doctors struggled to identify and address. Unable to work since 2014 due to his multiple service-caused conditions, Smith sought help to care for himself and his family.

“Civilians cannot understand the ways in which the military changes a person,” said Smith. It affects every aspect of your life and leaves an imprint forever.”

After leaving military service, Smith was met with what he described as a “dark and hopeless system” trying to get the support he needed.

“Military service is impossible to understand unless you experience it, and there are not enough people who care,” he said

Connecting with the Veterans Advocacy Clinic gave Smith new hope and provided him with a piece of his support system that was missing and legal help navigating the complicated system of VA disability claims.

Smith said the VAC was unique among service providers he had encountered because of its attention to detail and the amount of care and attention they showed veterans. Smith stressed the importance of the work that both Professor Hillary Wandler, director of the law school’s clinic program and VAC supervising attorney, and third-year law student Jay Dutcher provided, describing it as lifesaving. 

“Everyone played a different role,” said Smith. “My brother and wife were very important but could not have done what Hillary and Jay did. In an ideal world, every veteran would have a Jay and a Hillary.”

The VAC helped Smith put together an application that argued for a 2014 effective date for Unemployability benefits, and the clinic is still assisting Smith with his claims after helping him secure over $100,000 in back pay. 

“Jay worked swiftly to research the complex issues presented in Smith’s claim and argue for the appropriate effective date for back pay,” said Wandler. “He keeps Smith informed at every step, and they have developed a meaningful lawyer-client relationship as a result.”

“I am grateful that the clinic provides me the opportunity to continue developing my legal skills while assisting veterans and their families,” Dutchersaid. “It has been the most rewarding experience in law school for me to play a role in providing the collective support and advocacy that our veterans deserve.”

Moving forward, Smith says his focus is the happiness of his four-year-old son.


*Name changed to protect the client’s privacy