Securing Support

Seeking to serve those who’ve served their country, Kirkland attorneys devote thousands of hours each year to veterans-related pro bono work. They act as advocates for military service members, helping them access the support they need to return to civilian life, including essential resources to help them heal from injuries they experienced during duty that continue to impact their lives.

Military sexual trauma (MST), and the challenges survivors face, are pervasive and widely underserved issues in the U.S. military and its community of veterans.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military revealed that a total of 7,825 reports of sexual assault were made by service members in 2019, which was a 3% increase in total reports compared to the prior year. The actual number of incidents is likely much higher, as underreporting is a major issue in MST cases due to structural, cultural and social barriers that can discourage survivors from disclosing their experiences.

Tackling a Crisis

As a result of underreporting, many veterans have been left without access to the resources they need to support their healing and recovery.

Survivors of MST have reported struggling with mental and physical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and panic disorder, among others, that can have a lasting, detrimental impact on their health and quality of life.

In many cases, MST survivors are dealing with more than one condition. Help from pro bono attorneys who can advocate for their needs and guide them through the VA’s benefits process is critical.

In 2014, to support MST survivors, the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) in Washington, D.C., launched its MST project. At this time, the VA had estimated that one in four female and one in 100 male service members had experienced MST.

To help with this crucial need, Kirkland, in partnership with client Raytheon, sponsored Equal Justice Works fellow Tiffany Kelley as she joined NVLSP to move the project forward.

An Army veteran with experience working with injured service members and a background in veterans law, Tiffany was a capable advocate for the needs of MST survivors. She set up standard operating procedures for the program, compiled a complete body of training materials and trained 70 pro bono attorneys. During her fellowship, she connected 41 survivors with pro bono attorneys to take on their cases and assisted numerous other veterans with access to disability compensation, mental health evaluations and other forms of support.

MST at a Glance

1 in 4
Female service members who have experienced MST*
1 in 100
Male service members who have experienced MST*
Increase in MST reports from 2010 to 2019**
Reports of MST by service members in 2019**

Impacting Lives

Since 2014, Kirkland attorneys have handled 44 cases focused on securing benefits for MST survivors. In one such case, San Francisco environmental transactions partner Stefanie Gitler and Houston litigation associate Alexandra Caritis represented a female client whose initial claim had been denied by the VA for a purported lack of evidence. After two years of work to identify and present irrefutable evidence to the VA that the client had experienced MST while on duty, the Kirkland team secured benefits for her in August 2019.

“We were committed to getting our client the help she needed to heal and move forward,” said Gitler.

In another 2019 case, Kirkland successfully established a service connection for a physical injury a client suffered as a result of MST. To do so, New York tax associate Amanda Milhet identified supporting evidence in the veteran’s medical file and relied on studies confirming that a link existed between the type of injury the client suffered and MST. Based on this submission and further advocacy directly with the VA, the client was not required to undergo an additional, potentially traumatizing examination.

Veteran Stressed

“MST work requires thoughtful, sensitive lawyering,” said Milhet. “We handled our client’s case with the utmost care to get positive results.”

Kirkland’s Commitment

by the numbers
5152 pro bono hours
119 attorneys

Continued Service

Kirkland remains engaged in NVLSP’s MST program and continues to help refine it.

“Kirkland served a vital role in helping us launch the program, and Kirkland’s attorneys have demonstrated exceptional dedication and compassion as pro bono counsel to survivors,” said Bart Stichman, executive director of NVLSP.

One of the major challenges NVLSP aims to tackle is the shortage of volunteer attorneys available to take on MST work. To help address this, Kirkland attorneys collaborated with NVLSP to create a training manual to help legal volunteers quickly learn the benefits process and ways to best support the unique needs of trauma survivors.

The training manual provides information on MST and the conditions it can lead to, key legal definitions and standards employed by the VA, and tips for navigating issues that can arise throughout the claims process. With this tool, NVLSP has been able to engage even more pro bono attorneys to help with this need, leading to more opportunities for MST survivors to have a legal advocate at their side.

“Over the years, it has been rewarding to continue working with Kirkland as pro bono counsel to help our veteran survivors of MST get the VA disability benefits they need to help heal,” said Stichman.

“As the incidences of military sexual trauma continue to increase, the continued partnership of Kirkland and its attorneys in helping NVLSP to help our veterans is invaluable,” he added.

Kirkland served a vital role in helping us launch the program, and Kirkland’s attorneys have demonstrated exceptional dedication and compassion as pro bono counsel to survivors.”
Bart Stichman,
Executive Director of NVLSP
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