The Pro Claimers

W&M and Starbucks Share a Cup With Veterans

SERVICE: Austin Swink J.D. ’17 worked with Military Mondays throughout his 2L year en route to a future career in the Marine Corps.
SERVICE: Austin Swink J.D. ’17 worked with Military Mondays throughout his 2L year en route to a future career in the Marine Corps.
Photo by Eric Lusher

Everybody comes back different.

What the public sees now — at Fourth of July parades and NFL halftimes — is a long line of heroes. Men and women who bravely served their country in dangerous places and impossible situations, finally getting the recognition they deserve.

But that’s today’s glossy finish. For a soldier back from Vietnam in 1973, there were few parades. Even when the guns went quiet, the war was not done taking things away.

“Whatever we came home with, how we got treated only made it worse,” says Bob Fulcher, a Vietnam veteran and activist in Virginia. Many veterans hesitate to discuss their service. For Fulcher, he is quick to say he had it better than many in Vietnam.

“I can’t say I had it bad because the troops out in the jungle had it a lot worse,” he says. “I don’t want to present myself as any kind of hero or anything, but we were all in danger. We were definitely all in danger.”

It was early 1968, during the Tet Offensive. Fulcher, a company clerk, was there when his commanding officer told him their camp was about to be overrun that night. His grenade launcher had only a few grenades left, which would leave him only with a pistol. He recalls thinking, “I don’t want to get close enough to get close range.”

“[War] takes a toll, no matter what your job is,” he says. Fulcher stops telling the story there.

He jumps ahead to 1973, when he first attempted to file a disabilities claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with symptoms like upset stomach, anxiety, depression and hyper-vigilance. That claim was denied.

“Back in ’73, I think they denied everything unless you had amputations or lost limbs or something like that,” he says.

Then he jumps again, to another application in 1981, just as psychologists were beginning to understand that those symptoms could be grouped into post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. But the note on his medical record suggesting he get help filing his claim was ignored; Fulcher didn’t even see it until the 1990s. This — “of course,” he says — was denied as well.

Fulcher swore off the VA after that. What eventually brought him back was the compassion of a fellow veteran and the power of a simple cup of coffee.

Photo by David Morrill
photo_credit=”Photo by David Morrill

VELOCITY
Patricia Roberts’ J.D. ’92 coffee isn’t so simple.

“It’s a Venti one-pump mocha,” she says. “Been drinking it more than 10 years. It’s all I ever get: hot, all year long.”

For Roberts, director of William & Mary Law School’s Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans’ Benefits Clinic, her daily trip to Starbucks is therapeutic. She’s a loyal customer thanks to Starbucks’ sense of community, even if she’s not taking up space at a prime table all day long.

“Doing that same ritual every day, through lots of different trials and tribulations of life: that was something I would do for myself,” she says.

Soothing as it may be, the mocha wasn’t solving one of her most vexing problems: why weren’t more veterans showing up for some of the Puller Clinic’s outreach events?

The idea for the clinic had come in 2008 from former military lawyers Stacy-Rae Simcox J.D. ’99 and her husband, Mark Matthews J.D. ’99, who met at William & Mary Law School and were stunned by the complexity of the VA disability claims process as they separated from military service.

“They thought, if two well-educated lawyers are having trouble with this process, what is some young servicemember — just back from Afghanistan, potentially suffering from a traumatic brain injury — supposed to do?” recalls Jeff Bozman J.D. ’12, who came to the law school from the Marine Corps in the clinic’s early days. Before he arrived, he emailed Roberts. While he couldn’t offer any legal help, he did know how to speak the “Marine Corps acronym language.”

“Five minutes later, she said: ‘can you come in tomorrow?’” he remembers.

The clinic’s mission since 2008 has been to help veterans get the benefits to which they’re entitled, and advise and counsel them on the best ways to proceed with the VA. There are 24 Veterans Administration locations for over 726,000 vets in Virginia, 21 for 427,000 in Maryland and 3 more for the more than 30,000 in the District of Columbia. Both of the states’ veterans use VA services less than the national average, but have a higher-than-average rate of service-connected disability. There was, and is, real need for help. The Puller Clinic had staged events at homeless shelters, community centers and churches, but she knew there had to be a way to reach more veterans.

“You publicize the events and free services and hope they come,” she says, “but sometimes they don’t.”

The February 5, 2015 issue of TIME magazine offered one idea: coffee. “What Starbucks Knows About America” was their cover story, and its subject was CEO Howard Schultz. In the article, Schultz promoted the company’s plan to eventually hire 10,000 veterans, with the health and education benefits Starbucks is known for providing.

“We have to take care of people in the communities that we serve,” said Schultz in the article. “If half the country or at least a third of the country doesn’t have the same opportunities as the rest going forward, then the country won’t survive.”

Roberts also noted another fascinating point in the article: it said not every veteran lives near a VA medical center, but practically every veteran is close to a Starbucks location. Suddenly, the sense of community she’d felt at her local Starbucks came into focus: this was the outreach opportunity the Puller Clinic was looking for. So she emailed Schultz “blindly” on a Sunday afternoon.

A week later, she was on the phone with Starbucks corporate counsel.

“They were basically asking, ‘when can you start?’” Roberts says. She connected with Rob Porcarelli, one of the founders of Starbucks’ Armed Forces Network, and Military Mondays were born almost immediately.

“It’s not like large corporations ‘immediately do’ anything,” Porcarelli says. “The velocity here is really a testament to her.”

Porcarelli, Starbucks vice president and assistant general counsel, was stationed in Norfolk, Va., during his Navy career and knows Williamsburg well. He says that Roberts’ white paper outlining Military Mondays was fully formed from the beginning.

“I read this thing, and I thought it was a no-brainer,” he says. “This is exactly who we are. It’s in line with our priorities and our initiatives to support veterans and their spouses with hiring, and this is another way to support them.”

Starbucks gave itself until 2018 to hire those 10,000 veterans; in March, Schultz announced to shareholders the goal had been achieved more than a year ahead of schedule — alongside former Secretary of Defense and current William & Mary Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98, who sits on the company’s Board of Directors.

“As Americans,” Gates says, “I believe that we have no greater responsibility than to take care of those who serve and protect us, as well as their families.”

WELL MET: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (left) and former Secretary of Defense and W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 have been staunch advocates of improving opportunities for veterans.
WELL MET: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (left) and former Secretary of Defense and W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 have been staunch advocates of improving opportunities for veterans.

CLAIMS OVER COFFEE
The first Military Monday was June 29, 2015, at the McLaws Circle Starbucks in Williamsburg. The location, Roberts says, was perfect because there’s plenty of space for meetings to take place apart from the usual coffee customers, but still provide the Starbucks atmosphere that she says helps veterans feel at home and not stigmatized. Starbucks’ district manager in the region, Unique Turner, helped cement the partnership. Turner and Roberts were “kindred spirits,” she says.

“We said, ‘come if you have a question regarding disability compensation benefits; we’ll be here to help,’” Roberts says. Before long, veterans were making appointments for free legal counsel and help with benefits claims at the VA. They were calling it “Claims Over Coffee.”

Caleb Stone J.D. ’15 joined the Puller Clinic in the first semester of his 2L year, when students are first eligible to participate. Law students are eligible only to provide legal advice under the supervision of a licensed attorney, like Roberts. Stone had been looking to practice legal skills outside of the classroom; the Puller Clinic, and later Military Mondays, was the ideal venue.

“I wanted to actually practice law in a way that was actually a tangible benefit to people,” he says. “After I heard a little bit about the sort of disaster [veterans] go through in order to actually get disability compensation, I decided if I could help smooth that process out in some small way, that would be a good thing to do.”

After graduation — where he received the Benjamin Stoddert Ewell award — and admission to the Georgia state bar, Stone was back in Williamsburg as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, managing Military Mondays.

In the context of the Puller Clinic’s service offerings, Military Mondays operates like a one-stop shop under triage: when a veteran calls the clinic to set up an appointment, clinic staff helps to determine which questions can be answered in an hour at Starbucks, and which might require more time and attention.

Sometimes, the law students and staff are able to assist the veteran directly during their appointment; at other times, they provide a “framework” to help the vet complete the process on their own. If an hour isn’t long enough, staff at Military Mondays refer the vet to the larger clinic, where more research and information-gathering can take place. The clinic takes on some veterans for more long-term representation, preparing comprehensive claims or appeals packages that can average 400 hours of pro bono services per claim.

Photo by Starbucks
photo_credit=”Photo by Starbucks

Among many other resources, Stone and his colleagues use the Veterans Benefits Manual, a 2,100-page tome full of the rules that the VA uses to manage veterans’ claims. The most important skill, he says, is staying flexible.

“You have to recognize patterns,” Stone says. “The only way to truly learn what’s going to happen is by doing it over and over again and really throwing yourself into it.”

Today, Stone is helping throw brand-new 2Ls — like he was — “into the deep end of the pool,” as he puts it. Thankfully, each Military Mondays appointment also benefits from the presence of Hughes McLean, a representative of Virginia’s Department of Veterans Services, who can file some claims on the spot. But the work is still challenging and not always straightforward.

“We’re not dealing with constitutional law,” Stone says. “We’re not dealing with very concrete civil procedure rules. At the agency level, this is the equivalent of wading into the mud. It’s a massive bureaucracy and you hope that you come out on top of your claims.”

At a Military Monday in March, Stone, Roberts, McLean and a number of law students were on hand in their signature white polo shirts to help veterans like Marc Jacob. Jacob has been receiving benefits from the VA for his hearing loss and tinnitus — which sound like a constant high “C” note on the piano, he says — since 2002.

“The rub is,” Jacob says, “that I put in my claim in 1963. The tinnitus shows up in my military record in 1958.”

Jacob says he received a zero percent service-connected disability rating from the VA in 1981, but also received a hearing aid. Three pairs of hearing aids later, he attended Military Mondays in hopes of securing the benefits he feels he should have received since his initial claim in 1963.

Roberts estimates — using a “very conservative” hourly rate — that Military Mondays in Williamsburg provides $45,000 worth of free legal services per year. More than 220 veterans or family members of all ages, genders and concerns have come through the doors seeking help over coffee. It’s clear, nearly two years later, that William & Mary’s Military Mondays team was indeed on to something.

HANDS ON: In March, veteran Marc Jacob (left) attended a Military Mondays at the McLaws Circle Starbucks in Williamsburg. Patricia Roberts (middle) originated the Military Mondays idea, which is now nationwide.
HANDS ON: In March, veteran Marc Jacob (left) attended a Military Mondays at the McLaws Circle Starbucks in Williamsburg. Patricia Roberts (middle) originated the Military Mondays idea, which is now nationwide.

INNOVATING SERVICE
“Citizen lawyers” are a trademark of William & Mary Law School. In the tradition of John Marshall and George Wythe, even graduates who go on to large law firms bring with them a passion for impact. The Puller Clinic’s earliest students are no different. Joelle Laszlo J.D. ’09 joined Reed Smith, a Washington, D.C.-area firm, after graduation and immediately approached two of its partners about starting a pro bono veterans benefits project.

“I found myself in this total corporate firm environment, and my first thought was, ‘what pro bono can I do?’” she says. “One thing that William & Mary really helped us do is formulate that instinct, so that you could find the opportunities to be a citizen lawyer regardless of where you end up.” The project eventually involved 100 attorneys and paralegals stretching across 10 of Reed Smith’s U.S. offices. Today, she’s a co-chair of the Puller Clinic’s advisory board.

“It’s always easy to say that university campuses are where you have these great innovations in science,” she says. “But it’s just as true to say that universities innovate in ways to serve. It’s one of the reasons why I’m really ecstatic to support William & Mary.”

Sure enough, the legal world began to take notice. In March 2016, Military Mondays was the popular winner of the American Bar Association’s Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access, voted on by the general public. Starbucks asked Patty Roberts to explain the program at a “Muster” for veteran-supporting corporations and nonprofits in Seattle, and suddenly other organizations started calling.

“People read about it and said, ‘hey, we could do this here,’” says Roberts. A military reservist and professor at the University of California at Irvine began a program — modeled on the Williamsburg Military Mondays — at a Starbucks location in Santa Ana, Calif. The National Veterans Legal Services Program, whose resources the Puller Clinic uses, is now offering Military Mondays focused on aiding veterans with discharge upgrades, and several law firms in New York City have banded together and, working with a local nonprofit, offer Social Security disability assistance as a new iteration of the Starbucks initiative. Programs in Atlanta, Maine, the Carolinas, Seattle and Ohio are in place or coming soon. The process of reaching out to vets in this way is growing and getting easier. It’s growing so fast, Rob Porcarelli says, that he’s “lost count” of the number of stores using William & Mary’s model. It’s in the field guide for partners at every new Starbucks store, amongst other resources marshaled by Starbucks’ Armed Forces Network.

Some spinoff clinics tackle different aspects of legal advice for veterans. While the Williamsburg setup is primarily aimed at disability compensation benefits, veterans in Washington can find help with civil law questions or discharge upgrades. Some iterations include financial professionals offering advice to veterans, or community members providing employment advice and assistance. It’s a model that works, Laszlo says.

“The thing that really excites me about the Military Mondays concept is that it’s transferable to other types of services,” she says. “One week, a Starbucks could host the people who can assist you with your veterans benefits claims, but maybe the next week, it could have people who will assist you with a job interview or reformatting your resume.”

“It can be anything you want it to be,” Roberts says. “What we did was create a model where volunteers can decide what their veteran community needs are and what their own expertise is, and then they can meet those needs at a local Starbucks.”

SETTING UP SHOP: Hughes McLean, a representative from the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, is on hand every Military Monday to help file some claims on the spot.
SETTING UP SHOP: Hughes McLean, a representative from the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, is on hand every Military Monday to help file some claims on the spot.

KEEPING THE PROMISE
In 2006, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — the Moving Wall — was under escort to its exhibit at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, Va. Bob Fulcher rode in the motorcade. While, by then, Fulcher had sworn off the VA for a quarter-century, his pride of service remained.

“I saw a friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran,” remembers Fulcher, “I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He said, ‘you’ve got to go back — you’ve got to file your claim again. The VA is not what it used to be.’”

So he did. The struggles he remembered from the ‘70s and ‘80s were replaced by a much more efficient process; “like a regular doctor’s office.” But in early 2016, the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) still denied another of Fulcher’s PTSD-related claims.

“I threw it aside after I got the denial. It sounds so much like stereo instructions,” he says. “You can’t really comprehend what they’re saying to you.”

Thanks to a counselor at a nearby veterans center, Fulcher was sent to Military Mondays. The problem was, veterans denied by the BVA only have 120 days to file to reconsider the denial — and 112 days had already passed. Caleb Stone got the answer Fulcher needed and helped him file it just in time.

“I’m only assuming that everyone involved with [Military Mondays] and trying to help veterans is as great as Caleb is,” says Fulcher.

For Austin Swink J.D. ’17, Military Mondays and the Puller Clinic have provided a different kind of clarity. Swink spent his first year of law school with the intention to join the military, but hadn’t decided on the branch. After spending his 2L summer in 2015 working with the Puller Clinic, he found the work had strengthened his service commitment.

“Service was always in my mind,” he says. “I wanted to be part of that organization. I think [the veterans] gained the sense that I really respected what they have done and that I wasn’t just there to use them as a tool for learning legal skills. I’m not just going through the motions.”

By that December, Swink had applied and been accepted into Officer Candidate School for the U.S. Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. Today, he’s preparing for graduation and about to become a Judge Advocate.

“Attorneys really have a unique position to help veterans, not just on an individual level, but hopefully in the future on a policy level,” Swink says.

“We’ve made a promise to take care of these people. Because they put their lives and bodies on the line for us. Whatever they come back with from their time in service, we want to help them.”

Chancellor Gates agrees. “William & Mary, as it always has, is stepping up to provide services where they are needed most,” he says.

Bob Fulcher has an Army Commendation Medal. He still demurs at the notion he is any kind of hero, but he has taken his experience with disability compensation and turned it into advocacy. Now, he is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America and a delegate to the Virginia State Council on Vietnam Veterans. He shares what he’s learned with his fellow veterans because until the last few years, his fellow veterans were all he had. Only recently did Fulcher feel comfortable wearing his Vietnam Veterans ballcap out in public.

“I tell you: the first time when I started wearing my hat,” he begins, before choking up.

“The first time the lady in the Sam’s Club said, ‘thank you for your service,’ I went out in the car and cried.”

“We were denied for so long.”

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Discussion

  1. Wonderful story that showcases the values W&M instills in its graduates and the meaningful impact in our communities that results. Thank you for sharing it!

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