Q&A with Martin Parsons, Director of the Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program at the SIU School of Law
The SIU School of Law’s Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program is a partner in IL-AFLAN. How has being part of this statewide network impacted the work your program does in southern Illinois?
Our partnership with IL-AFLAN has increased our exposure to veterans outside of our local region and expanded the geographic reach of our clinic. We serve clients throughout the state because of the IL-AFLAN Hotline. The Hotline saves us time by screening potential clients for appropriate referrals to our program. Before the Hotline, we received calls directly from veterans and then conducted the initial screening interview to determine if it was a legal matter we could assist with. This would take between 30-60 minutes per veteran. By routing almost all our potential clients through the IL-AFLAN Hotline for their initial screening, we save time that we can use to serve more veterans.
SIU recently hosted a summit regarding the unique challenges facing veterans. What was one of the key takeaways when it came to access to legal assistance?
One of the exciting and initial outcomes of the Summit is a newly formed collaboration to review Veterans’ medical records between SIU School of Law Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program (“VLAP”) and the SIU School of Medicine. VA disability claims appeals often rely heavily on the accurate review of a veteran’s military medical records, private medical records, and VA medical records. Up to this point, my students and I would review the medical records and Google the various diagnosis and attempt to make a connection. We do not have the proper training or experience to conduct a thorough, efficient, and accurate review of the medical records.
By collaborating with students from the SIU School of Medicine to review the veteran’s medical records, we can provide a more compelling argument for service connection in our appeal. This will also save time that VLAP staff can use assisting more Veterans. The collaboration also provides an outstanding opportunity for law students and medical students to practice working with other professionals, as they will after graduation.
What is one thing you want elected officials to know about the veterans your program serves?
Our primary practice area is VA disability appeals. The VA disability claims system is a complicated, confusing process and can take years to resolve a claim. The veterans I work with are frustrated with the length of time many of them wait for a decision and they often do not understand the paperwork they receive. For every veteran that seeks assistance with his/her claim, there is at least one or two more that are navigating the system on his/her own. The VA has attempted, even as recent as this year, to “modernize” the appeals system. However, the communications from the VA are still as confusing, if not more, than they were before the modernization. Veterans need a simpler, less confusing process to access the VA disability benefits they may be entitled to receive.
You spent four years on active duty in the Marine Corps, twenty-two years in the Illinois Army National Guard and served in Iraq. Was military service something you always aspired to, and what lessons did it teach you?
Although my father served in the Army during the Vietnam War and my grandfather served in the Army during WW I, I did not join the military because of their service or a sense of duty. My reason was more basic. I joined the military because I had not considered college and there were not many other opportunities in my hometown. I joined the Marine Corps because the Marine Corps recruiter was the first one to knock on my door and ask me to join.
I learned the standard lessons about the importance of discipline, fortitude, and hard work. Probably the most important lesson I learned was the value of serving others and serving a cause greater than myself. It is the reason I continue to serve my brothers and sisters-in-arms by doing the work I do.