by Robin J. Johnson (B.A. ’11, M.A. ’13)
New law fellowships address need for veteran advocacy
When combat veteran Marine Sgt. Nestor Lopez returned to civilian life in his early 20s, he found himself faced with some harsh realities.
“I really couldn’t find anyone who could help me navigate (Veterans Affairs) or government benefits,” said Lopez, speaking of months-long waits for doctor appointments and underfunded programs.
“I couldn’t find anyone who could actually advocate for me,” he said.
Because of this experience, Lopez felt a call to help initiate change. He decided to attend law school and commit part of his focus on veteran’ legal issues.
Lopez is now one of three third-year St. Mary’s Law students selected as the first fellows for the Moody Foundation Veterans Law Fellowships, along with retired Air Force Maj. Jennifer Galgano and Selina Padilla.
The School of Law and the Moody Foundation have partnered to elevate veteran resources and support by creating new fellowship opportunities, which are part of a program dedicated to aid veterans with legal assistance through the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) Veterans Advocacy Project.
“It’s clear that veterans’ needs really just begin when they leave the battlefield,” said Allan Matthews, grants director for the Moody Foundation, which provided $500,000 in funding. “The Moody Foundation wants to support those who are helping veterans. This program is a fine example of that.”
St. Mary’s University also addressed the growing need for veteran support felt across San Antonio — aka Military City USA — by opening its own Veterans Center on campus this fall, funded by retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Belisario J. Flores (B.B.A. ’50) and his wife Adelina. The Veterans Center, located in the University Center, is exclusively for St. Mary’s student-veterans like Lopez and Galgano, offering a dedicated space for quiet study and camaraderie.
For the Moody Foundation Veterans Law Fellowships, law students are each assigned a supervising attorney and focus on the most pressing issue for each veteran seeking legal assistance. The fellowship offers valuable work experience for
the students and provides veterans with aid for issues including disability claims, family law, tenant rights and restoring driver’s licenses. Left unresolved, these legal issues could prevent the client’s ability to secure employment or housing.
While many organizations offer veteran services in San Antonio, the TRLA was selected because it is one of the few that focus on legal services, said Karen Kelley, J.D., Director of Clinical Education at the St. Mary’s School of Law. The nonprofit had already established a veteran advocacy program, so it was a “natural fit for students wanting to work in legal issues for veterans,” added Kelley, who oversees the fellowship program.
Galgano, who will start her fellowship in Spring 2018, shares her colleagues’ call for advocacy for former service members. “The important part is getting veterans back into society,” she said.