State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

For Penn State Law Grad, Helping Vets Means Never Giving Up

by and on November 11, 2016 12:00 PM

The 50,000 or so veterans who call Centre County home have access to a resource invaluable to their well-being and livelihood. And much of the credit for the establishment of the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic at Penn State Law goes to Centre County attorney Justin Bish, who practices with McQuaide Blasko Law Office.

A service member himself and current field artillery officer in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Bish recognized the need for legal aid to veterans.

The initial spark for the idea came when, as an undergrad, Bish had an internship granted, then revoked due to his absence for military training.

"I thought this can't be right,'" he recalled, "and this must be happening to other people too."

That seed of a plan started in 2011. One year later, Bish found himself with the Ohio Army National Guard and witnessed events that reinforced his initial motivation. He observed the effects that the loss of a member had on those who survived.

"I saw the issues they had with the VA and I knew we had to be able to do more," he said.

Bish grew up in Corsica. As a sixth-grader, he became transfixed by the Bush-Gore election dispute. He developed an interest in law and politics.

"Politics and law go together," he said.

In fact, he ran for president of his sixth-grade class and won. Two years later, Bish had a gym teacher who served in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and deployed after 9/11. He admired this teacher and, by the time Bish finished high school, he knew he wanted to serve the country.

"If you want to lead, you have to serve," he said.

After his undergraduate work at Penn State, and well into his law school work at Penn State Law, Bish found himself in a position to pursue his goal of helping veterans. He found encouragement in Penn State Law's interim dean James W. Houck. And he found a partner in fellow law student Rebecca Buckley-Stein.  Buckley-Stein herself had lost a relative to a combat-related condition.

Basically, the Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic offers assistance to veterans who need help navigating the maze of Veterans Affairs procedures.

"When a veteran's benefits are denied, it becomes increasingly impossible to appeal," Bish said.

The clinic utilizes law students, giving them experience in an area of law that Bish says few explore. 

"Attorneys specializing in this have to be accredited through the VA," according to Bish, who added, "This gives students exposure to a new area of law while servicing a community and population that desperately needs it."

Bish recalled a veteran who returned from his deployment, worked hard and had a successful career. But late in life, the individual developed a serious medical condition directly attributable to substance exposure during combat. After being denied benefits, he came to the clinic for help. And the students there continue to advocate for him.

"It's heartbreaking," Bish said. "You can see it in their faces, they wonder how this happened to them."

Although working in private practice these days, Bish still has close contact with the clinic. And, as a field artillery officer with 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, he still serves in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. So he has some sincere words for veterans and those who care about them.

"Don't ever give up on what you need," he said. "Continue to fight and never stop."

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Ann is an Arts and Entertainment correspondent for the Gazette.
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