Thank A Female Veteran With Access To Legal Services

By Rep. Susan Wild | October 28, 2019, 7:26 AM EDT

Susan Wild
As an attorney of over 30 years, I understand the critical importance legal services have on underserved communities. That's why I took on pro bono cases while I was in private practice and mentored young attorneys to do the same. It is why I have championed increased federal funding for legal aid and public defender programs since coming to Congress.

Where a disparate gap in access to counsel exists, injustice follows. But it would be naïve to think that volunteerism and funding alone are sufficient.

Far too many Americans still do not have adequate access to simple legal services, fair housing or quality health care — and a disproportionate number of those Americans are veterans.

And now as a record number of women join our military forces, a disproportionate number of those veterans are women. But women face unique challenges, different from those of their male counterparts. That's why I am so proud to have introduced the Improving Legal Services for Female Veterans Act.

I am especially proud that several of my Pennsylvania colleagues — Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. (who is a veteran of the United States Air Force) — joined me in this effort.

We are each members of the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus — which was founded by Rep. Houlahan in an effort to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing America's female veterans.

My bill would require the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to partner with nongovernmental organizations to provide legal services specifically to female veterans. This partnership would focus on the 10 highest unmet needs of female veterans as described in the most recent Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group for Veterans, or CHALENG for Veterans, survey.

The current survey lists as unmet needs: child care, dental care, legal assistance for eviction and mortgage foreclosure cases, child support and custody disputes, and legal assistance to help restore driver's licenses.

Today, women continue to take on new roles and responsibilities in every branch of our armed services. According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, over 345,000 women have deployed since 9/11. When these women return home, they face different challenges than their male counterparts.

Generally, women are more likely to be the primary caregiver of their children and are much more likely than men to act as the caregiver for other family members in need. This extra burden makes their need for child support more likely, raises their chances of losing their job or working fewer hours, and makes their expenses higher — not to mention, the existing gender wage gap means they often make less money than their male counter parts.

These factors are all exasperated by the transition from military life to civilian life that female veterans are undertaking, They increase the chances of experiencing homelessness and make finding and affording a lawyer when legal battles arise challenging to near-impossible.

Many of the services to assist female veterans address similar needs to those of male veterans — needs like housing issues, Veterans Treatment Court, assistance with appealing the VA claims process and seeking discharge upgrades. However, there are a disproportionate number of women who were dishonorably discharged because they reported a sexual assault. This issue is specific to female veterans and deserves the same attention and services provided to male veterans seeking legal support for similar discharge appeals.

Another major concern that is more likely to affect female veterans is assistance with custody issues. Providing legal services specifically to female veterans is a long overdue step toward providing the same quality of care and assistance to female veterans as their male counterparts receive, particularly as they transition to civilian life.

My bill would require the VA to provide the kind of legal services that can help alleviate some of these burdens. For example, women facing foreclosure or eviction on their homes or fighting for child support would be able to look to the VA to help them navigate this daunting legal terrain and women struggling to find affordable child care could find an expert within the VA to help them apply for subsidized care.

Easing burdens for our veterans is personal to me: I come from a military family — my father was a career Air Force pilot who flew bombers in World War II and the Korean War. I was born on a base in Germany and we lived on Air Force bases across our country and around the world throughout my childhood.

I know from personal experience that the family of every service member serves right alongside them. And in my own family, I have seen the extraordinary toll that the burdens of military service can take.

It is the duty of members of Congress to support our men and women in uniform after they come home. Due to the increase in female service members since 2001, the number of women seeking care at the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased by 80%.

Treating female veterans equitably is not a partisan or a women's issue. In a recent national survey conducted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 78% of respondents, regardless of gender or political beliefs, agreed that addressing issues facing female veterans is extremely or very important.

Those of us in elected office would do well to heed the lessons of those men and women who have worn our country's uniform. When they serve together and, later, as veterans, they don't see one another first and foremost as Republicans or Democrats. Transcending differences of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, they understand that theirs is a deeper unity. A unity of shared ideals, rather than shared origins.

Coming together to ensure equitable treatment of female veterans starts with passage of the Improving Legal Services for Female Veterans Act, step one in the longer process of building a 21st century that guarantees first-rate services to every veteran. It falls on each and every one of us to live up to this responsibility. So long as I have the privilege of serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will work as hard as I can to honor my commitment to all those who have risked everything to serve us.

Democratic Congresswoman Susan Wild represents Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Portfolio​​ Media Inc. or any of its​​ respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes an​​d is​​ ​​not ​​intended to be and​​ should not be taken as legal advice.

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