Andrew Culberson knows that a U.S. veteran’s transition from military to civilian life isn’t always easy. Many suffer from PTSD, some try to cope with drugs and alcohol and others neglect things like car registration or speeding tickets.
“They end up going on a downward spiral,” he told The Tidings. “But when they come to us, they are on their way up.”
Veterans struggling to readjust to civilian life are getting a boost from the Veterans Project, a three-year-old initiative that has helped hundreds of military men and women get their lives back on track with the assistance of pro bono attorneys and private funding.
Culberson, Veterans Project director, has overseen the monthly clinics for veterans where attorneys lead veterans through the legal maze of dealing with outstanding tickets, warrants and reclaiming their driver’s licenses. The project also serves walk-in clients.
The clients usually hit rock bottom before realizing that they have to turn their lives around, Culberson said. He added that they take the step towards legal assistance after recognizing that they made mistakes but are ready to address them “practically.” A rewarding 85 percent of clients follow through with the assistance provided.
Herschel Cosby, 59, has worked as a peer support specialist for the Veterans Administration Hospital since Sept. 2014. He is responsible for transporting veterans to the Veterans Project monthly clinics, among other duties.
Cosby served in the Army from 1975 to 1978 as a personnel administrative specialist at Fort Lewis, Washington, before being honorably discharged. Originally from Los Angeles, he joined the Army at 19, after completing one year of college.
Cosby said that his initial transition from military to civilian life wasn’t difficult. “In 1978 there was no war going on. When I did end my military career, it was in a military town: Tacoma, Washington, near Fort Lewis.”
The residents of Tacoma are aware of the military culture since many are either military personnel or come from military families, he says.
“The difficulty began for me when I went back to Los Angeles, where I am originally from. And that’s where I got absorbed into the big city life and it was a big culture shock.”
He got caught up in the fast lane, he says.
“I had some issues with the criminal justice system, got caught up with addiction. And at the time I didn’t know there were avenues or systems for helping you.”
He adds that the military teaches self-sufficiency and resiliency, but when your life is on a downward spiral, he warns, “you have to reach out for help.”
He works to inform veterans who are going through difficult times of their options.
“And this is what I try to impress upon veterans who are younger,” he says. “You don’t have to go to prison, you don’t have to have your tickets stacked up on top of each other because there are different routes for help.”
The Veterans Project operates out of Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, the home of the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The project is one of many initiatives of the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA).
Almost nine out of 10 clients find some form of relief from the court, ranging from dismissal of all charges to reduction or elimination of fines and fees, and community service in lieu of fines and fees.
The attorneys prepare the clients to represent themselves by drafting the correction documents. To date, more than 300 veterans have benefited from the program.
The free legal assistance is important to these clients. An estimated 84 percent of the veterans are living on incomes that fall below the 2015 federal poverty level — $11,770 for an individual. More than 50 percent of these clients are also living on the street or are at risk of becoming homeless.
Often veterans are living in poverty because they can’t apply for jobs without a driver’s license or with a misdemeanor on record. Veterans Project attorneys are able to clear outstanding tickets and warrants, reinstate California driver’s licenses and help clear criminal records for employment.
The pro bono attorneys report that they find the clinics educational and rewarding. They also go above and beyond to help veterans: one attorney even stayed after hours to prepare a motion (handwritten to expedite the process) in order to have a client fully prepared for his next-day 8:30 a.m. court hearing.
Cosby is grateful to the attorneys who come out to help. He knows that it means the attorneys have to put their fears aside and come out of their comfort zone.
“They are representing either the homeless or those with mental issues — sometimes that scares people,” he says.
The background, age and experience of the veterans vary. Roughly 20 percent of the clients served during the Gulf War and another 20 percent served after 9/11. Another 27 percent served during the Vietnam War.
The driving force and one of the founders of the Veterans Project, Alan Steinbrecher, first proposed the idea to the Los Angeles Bar Association in 2010.
“It just seemed that the veteran community was being underserved by the governmental agencies,” he says.
While acknowledging the great work done by many organizations and government projects, Steinbrecher thought LACBA had a unique ability to provide for the legal needs of veterans without duplicating the work of the other overwhelmed organizations.
Steinbrecher is both an attorney and a veteran. He is a former United States Navy fighter pilot who completed 177 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
He has since retired as a captain from the United States Naval Reserve while continuing his over-30-year litigation career in Los Angeles. Despite having an easy transition to civilian life, he understands the process.
“There are some who have real problems readjusting,” he says, noting that veterans in such cases are not always troubled mentally. They just have issues that are exasperated by the transition.
“And that can be in terms of financial literacy, in terms of family matters and criminal entanglements,” he says.
At the moment, the Veteran’s Project staffs two people part-time. They develop course materials, direct the clinics and conduct outreach to potential clients and pro bono attorneys.
Steinbrecher hopes to expand the initiative into more areas of legal aid and move their part-time staff to full-time. But, he says, “We can only do that once we have secured greater funding.”
“Raising money is always hard, but we have found tremendous interest and support in the community from law firms, from law departments of companies, and other foundations.”
To learn more about the L.A. County Bar Association’s Council for Justice (which sponsors the Veterans Project), visit: www.lacba.org