For Swords to Plowshares legal whiz Devin Bissman, who plans to make a career out of working with veterans, the misconceptions are many surrounding our former service members.
“Some people assume all veterans have had similar experiences in the military or had the same job, and that perception can turn veterans off from wanting to seek services,” Bissman says. “But there are as many jobs in the military as there are jobs in civilian world. One cool thing about this organization is that anyone who ever volunteered to join the military is someone that we want to help.”
A veteran himself, Bissman served in the Army National Guard from 2006 to 2012 as part of Infantry Security Forces, during which he deployed in 2011 to Farah Province, Afghanistan. His mission: to help out reconstruction teams with engineering projects, usually by safeguarding engineers, communications specialists and civil affairs personnel.
Now armed with an BS in Criminal Justice from Arizona State and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law (which he began two weeks after returning home from deployment), Bissman is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Swords to Plowshares, having joined our team in late 2014 following an internship. His two-year contract allows him to provide both one-time assistance at our drop-in clinic as well as ongoing representation, typically managing a caseload of about 20 clients. The most common veterans’ needs are to obtain their benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or upgrade their discharge status. Or both.
“What’s most rewarding is feeling like I’m helping the underrepresented. If I don’t help this person, they’re just not going to get help, so we’re a backstop to prevent people from falling into homelessness or poverty. It’s different from other legal practices because even if we’re talking about something that happened 30 years ago, it’s still relevant and I can still help.”
Helping vets work through the legal system is neither swift nor glorious, where the biggest challenge can be the wait time. Even when everything is done right, the process takes a minimum of six months; and when something goes wrong, the appeals process averages 522 days.
“It’s hard because lot of clients are questioned on what happened, whether it was a physical incident or PTSD, and their integrity is questioned in the process,” Bissman says. “I’m an intermediary advocate, instead of them having to go directly against the VA. The administrative process is supposed to be non-adversarial, but it doesn’t always feel that way.”
Bissman specializes in Guard and Reserve veterans, many of whom face different struggles than their active-duty counterparts after separating from service. Quite a few of his clients previously had no idea that any veteran assistance programs existed.
“I think for a lot of them, the exit from the system is a lot faster—you leave active duty and two weeks later, you no longer have conversations about Iraq or Afghanistan the way you would if you lived at an active duty base, and you have less access to services. It’s not the same type of support system. The help, the advocacy, is needed. ”
Bissman also helps facilitate communication between the VA, military doctors and mental health professionals; at least one day a week he conducts a clinic at the San Francisco VA Medical Center in Fort Miley. His tenure at Swords to Plowshares has also provided him with exposure to public policy and the chance to work alongside passionate attorneys who volunteer their time pro bono.
“You take the Swords banner with you wherever you go,” Bissman says. “I don’t think I could see not working on these kind of cases. Working with the group we have here, I have knowledge to help where otherwise a lot of veterans would fall through the cracks or give up on their claim because it’s taking a few years, without full understanding of why a claim is not being granted. I know this will be part of my career, whether I continue to be employed here or somewhere else. I definitely chose this.”