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story.lead_photo.caption While some of us learn to bake sourdough or plant a garden, the students of the University of Missouri School of Law Veteran's Clinic are still hard at work helping veterans.

While some of us learn to bake sourdough or plant a garden, the students of the University of Missouri School of Law Veteran's Clinic are still hard at work helping veterans.

"During the pandemic, with everything that's happened, while students are no longer physically in class, we've kept going remotely," Veterans Clinic Director Brent Filbert said. "Our representation hasn't missed a beat."

He and Veterans Clinic support specialist Sara O'Connor spoke to the Fulton Rotary Club about the clinic and the Tigers for Troops program.

"Our law students take (the Veterans Clinic) course in their second and third year," O'Connor explained. "This allows our clinic to provide pro-bono assistance to veterans looking to appeal for Veterans Affairs benefits or upgrade their discharge status."

Filbert said the process of receiving veterans' benefits is byzantine and often riddled with errors. The process to appeal the VA's decision is even worse.

"Average time from filing to resolution is about seven years," he said. "(These cases) often have difficult legal issues and medical issues."

The other main type of case the clinic takes on is upgrading the discharge status of veterans. If a veteran is discharged from the military with an other-than-honorable discharge or worse, they typically can't receive veterans' benefits.

"They didn't go to court marshal or get criminal charges," Filbert said of the vets who received OTH discharges. "They did something stupid, got in a fight or smoked pot. They get discharged with other-than-honorable, and they get nothing."

For these veterans, a lawyer is a vital aid in navigating the courts — but lawyers aren't cheap. By relying on law students, the Veterans Clinic can provide legal aid to vets for free, plus valuable experience for the students. Each year, up to 16 students take the course; the clinic is currently handling the cases of more than 155 clients.

"They're directly involved in representing vets," Filbert said. "This is one of few opportunities (in law school) to have a real client, someone talking to you on the phone maybe who isn't making a lot of sense or is emotional."

He showed a video of an interview with a Veterans Clinic client:

Filbert said, since its founding in 2014, the clinic has been able to assist more than 600 veterans, secure nearly $5 million in disability compensation and achieve a 100 percent success rate in getting clients' discharge status upgraded.

He said some of the students involved are veterans or have military family members. Some stay in touch with Veterans Clinic clients even after graduating.

"Our students are phenomenal," O'Connor said. "They really don't let those cases go; they'll continue to follow up with clients and develop wonderful relationships with them. It's amazing how confident they become so quickly that they can take on a case and help someone."

O'Connor overseas another Veterans Clinic program, Tigers for Troops, which focuses on giving free legal consultations and information on benefits to rural veterans in partnership with the MU Extension.

"The majority of Missouri vets live in rural communities," she explained. "Something like half the counties in the state don't have a dedicated service officer, a VA hospital or clinic or access to the resources you see in more urban areas. We've taken on task to reach out to every single one of those counties."

Though the pandemic has impacted progress on that front, it hasn't brought Tigers for Troops to a complete halt.

"We were recently able to meet 10 vets in Johnson County via Zoom meetings," she said. "We're still doing outreach."

Other Veterans Clinic efforts include filing amicus briefs in major veterans-related court cases, providing continuing legal education for lawyers and hosting an annual symposium on veteran law.

All that is done on a shoestring budget. Filbert said the program is funded entirely by private donations; the students work for free.

"A lot of them want to give back. They want to help veterans," he said.

To learn more, visit

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