Yelena Duterte Helps Veterans Get Legal Assistance
Yelena Duterte,lecturer and director of Syracuse University College of Law’s Veterans Legal Clinic, began working at the university this year. She has a family history of military service, and has been involved with Veterans Affairs for most of her life. Now she teaches veterans and law students alike about the intricacies of VA law, and veterans legal assistance.
Her father was drafted and served in Vietnam, but he didn’t talk much about the war while Yelena was growing up.
“When I was younger I actually thought we won Vietnam. While I was growing up my father started to talk about the war and the difficulties that he saw veterans go through,” she said.
He father however was fortunate, and was not wounded during the war, but did have some hearing damage. That process took quite a bit of time to resolve through the VA.
But it was her grandfather who had far more difficulties, after serving in WWII.
“He was actually from the Philippines, born and raised there. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor they also came in and took over the Philippines. My grandfather went along with the Americans and fought the Japanese,” she said.
His service then qualified him for VA benefits. But the process of getting those benefits was incredibly difficult.
“There is one benefit that comes with being a Philippine veteran, and it was getting a payout of roughly $15,000 or $16,000, and the VA denied him because they said he was working for the other side essentially. They had no records of him. It was frustrating because we knew he was a prisoner of war, and when you have no record, trying to explain it to the VA is very difficult,” she said.
It’s these personal reasons that inspired Yelena to focus on veterans law, and ways to help veterans with legal assistance.
“It’s really very niche in the legal field, but it was really an opportunity for me to learn a specific area of law and I kept with it,” she said.
Yelena has been focused on two primary issues, Veterans benefits, and upgrading military discharges.
Aside from working cases to help Veterans receive compensation for injuries and ensure they are aware of their benefits, the clinic also looks to ensure that Veterans are fully eligible for the benefits they earned. In many instances veterans have issues when it comes to honorable discharges.
“There are people getting out with general discharges, that allows you to get all the benefits, but you cannot get the GI bill. Also with a discharge called ‘other than honorable discharge’ you are essentially barred from all benefits. You can’t get medical from the VA, and you can’t get monetary benefits like an honorable veteran. When someone has a lower than ‘honorable discharge’ for really, really small things it can affect your whole livelihood after a discharge from the military,” she said.
While issues like these are typical Yelena is also looking towards future goals and issues for the clinic to address.
“We are trying to work with is clinical psychologists to see if we can get someone to work with our clients to help give opinions and a diagnosis on mental health disabilities. We are also looking to start a veteran treatment court. In Onondaga County there’s a program, but not a full-scale version of court. There isn’t a streamlined process or data collection at this point, so we don’t know how successful the program is. Having a stand alone court would be ideal to do that,” she said.
Even though this is the first semester the program has been available for law students many are making good use of the class.
“I have one student who definitely wants to do this as pro bono work. Some of the other students are going into the military as JAG attorneys, so they want to understand this. When they go to the military they can give proper advice to veterans and know what type of services they can expect,” she said.
The clinic is also looking to work with the Whitman School of Management, to help veterans with finances.
“At the end of a case, a veteran will hopefully be granted a huge sum of money. So we are working with Whitman now to see if we can work on financial planning centers with their students and faculty that can work with these veterans to save the way they need to save,” she said.
With more clients signing up, and law students registering for courses in the fall Yelena is looking for the clinic to help make an impact on the lives of veterans and future lawyers.
“We want to take the difficult cases, the ones that they’ve tried several times and kept losing. I want to see if we can help those veterans.”
Duterte is like many people drawn to Syracuse because of the university. She came to do good work, and she’s been pleasantly surprised by what CNY has to offer. Living downtown has been a pleasant surprise for her, and not just because of the Armory Square nightlife. She has discovered that her neighbors make a big difference. “I am always pleasantly surprised how welcoming everyone has been at SU. And also impressed by how strong the veteran bonds are here.”