February 02, 2024 7:06 pm • Last Updated: February 02, 2024 8:06 pm
New London ― Low income veterans gained a new resource this week in the form of free legal aid.
The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center has opened an office here to serve a population that in some cases is cut off from traditional veterans benefits and faces legal barriers to housing, health care and employment. Until now, the organization’s largest concentration of services was in New Haven, Hartford and Fairfield counties where it worked with more than 1,500 veterans last year.
“We’ve been looking to get a better foothold in the eastern part of the state where we know there is a need,” Alison Weir, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, said.
Weir attended an open house on Friday for the Capt. Matthew E. Auger USNR Office at the offices of Suisman Shapiro law firm on State Street. Suisman Shapiro is donating the space along with pro bono work from some of its attorneys. Other attorneys have already signed on to provide free aid to the nonprofit, including John Durham, the retired US Attorney for the District of Connecticut.
The office is named after Judge Matthew Auger, who worked at Suisman Shapiro from 1988 until he was appointed to serve as a Superior Court judge in 2018. He had previously served four years in the Navy and retired as a captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps of the US Naval Reserve in 2014. Auger died of cancer in April.
Along with aid to the CVLC, Auger had volunteered his time providing legal assistance to retired and active duty military and their families at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
Auger’s daughter, Bree Dolce, said the naming of the new office after her father was a fitting tribute.
“He would speak to me fondly about his pro bono cases and said it was one of his favorite things to do. He always said ‘Bree, quite frankly I get so much more out of it than they do. I know I’m supposed to be helping them but they truly help me,’” Dolce said.
Wesir said the center, which will initially be open at least one day a week and by appointment, will assist veterans with civil or criminal matters that are in some cases compounding existing substance or mental health problems. She said that a veteran who is less than honorably discharged also does not qualify for financial benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Ronald Welch, a retired Army brigadier general, said members of the military are provided quality services while in uniform. Many of the services are no longer available after service, however.
“These services are so critical. “They can even be life saving, especially for somebody who’s in a lot of trouble,” Welch said. “They don’t know where to turn. They’re already depressed. They might have (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and they’re starting to spiral down. They don’t have financial resources and when they’re at the bottom of the well, what’s your alternative.”
There were a total of 6,146 veteran suicides in 2020, an average of 16.8 per day, according to a 2022 report from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are 57% more likely to commit suicide than the average citizen.
“The services you’re going to offer are so important to enable them to live the best lives they possibly can,” Welch said.
In addition to legal work, the CVLC is involved with the Veterans Inclusion Project to understand inequities in the federal system that show Black service members are more likely to receive less than honorable discharges from military service and lose benefits as a result. Some of the organization’s work involves fighting for discharge upgrades for veterans to allow access to benefits, Weir said.
To contact the CVLC, call (203) 479-0375 or visit www.ctveteranslegal.org. For veterans in crisis, call 988.
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