Nightmares, as relentless as a bone-chilling winter, invade Marine veteran Carlos Gonzalez’s sleep, reminders of the carnage of war. Even still. Three decades after his combat service in the Gulf War.
“They come almost every night, and the exhaustion from lack of sleep sometimes felt like it would swallow me,” said the 54-year-old veteran, who struggled in a revolving door of jobs due to anger issues. “I couldn’t take the stress. I lived my life like it was fight or flight, always ready for conflict. And then when I couldn’t find employment, I became homeless. I hit bottom.”
Gonzalez found boarding at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless shelter in Dallas. Therapy followed. With a diagnosis of service-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he received 70% disability from the VA. But making ends meet was still a challenge.
“And then I found this wonderful place that helped me with a driver’s license problem and in other ways I just couldn’t imagine,” he said, choking back tears. “Without them, probably, my life would be hell.”
The place Gonzalez credits for his life’s positive turn is the Texas A&M University School of Law’s Family & Veterans Advocacy Clinic in Forth Worth, where students, supervised by licensed attorneys, help poverty-level individuals and veterans in need. The clinic, partially funded through grants from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, handles legal cases related to divorces, protective orders, child custody, termination of parental rights, adoptions and an array of other issues affecting the indigent. In each case, Aggie students gain valuable experience in court.
For Gonzalez, the specter of homelessness no longer looms. He gives credit to student Paula Pitter ’19 and clinic supervisor and staff attorney Lynn Rodriguez, who filed for full disability from the U.S. government on his behalf. The claim was approved and his monthly disability payments more than doubled.
“Helping individuals get into better life situations is the goal,” said clinic director and professor Celestina Flores, who knows the face of poverty firsthand. The youngest of 10 siblings, her parents were migrant workers who relied on the government for commodities. “A lot of people know that kind of experience. It is our goal at this clinic to lift them up. I love watching that happen.”
Watching students gain confidence in the courtroom is equally satisfying, Flores added. “The student is basically our client’s attorney. They have the most interaction with them.”
Gonzalez downplayed his needs at first, said Pitter, who is an Army veteran herself. “That’s how a lot of veterans are. They don’t think they are deserving, but they’ve earned this,” she said. “In the claim for 100% disability, we had to tell the VA the story of how PTSD has affected Carlos’s life. And they agreed. We couldn’t have asked for better results.”
It takes every ounce of courage for a veteran to ask for help, Rodriguez said, because they are trained to be the ones watching out for others. “There are all kinds of needs out there. We brainstorm with them and come up with strategies and resources that can help their situation,” she said.
Rodriguez recalled a client who suffered a severe head injury during Army basic training, just days before he was to graduate. “He found himself with no veteran classification, so no military benefits for ongoing treatment. He was in a no man’s land,” she explained. “If you aren’t even recognized as a veteran, you can’t get disability.”
Rodriguez and Pitter successfully channeled his case through the VA, getting him veteran status and a significant monthly disability payment.
In another case, Rodriguez and students successfully halted foreclosure on a terminally ill veteran’s house. “We went to the bank and said, ‘Could you please not foreclose on this guy who is dying? Can you just let him stay in his house till he passes?’” she recalled. “And they did. He lived in his house until he passed.”
Rodriguez’s passion for the job comes from family.
“My dad and my Uncle Donald served in the Korean War,” she said. “A grenade blew up very close to my uncle, and he lost fingers and had shrapnel throughout his body. We adored him. He was funny and handsome and raised two little girls that weren’t his. And then, one day, he died unexpectedly. I do this job for Uncle Donald."
HOMELESSNESS TO HOPE
Gonzalez sat in a tiny office at the Family & Veterans Law Clinic on a recent afternoon, earbuds dangling from his neck, a battery-powered pocket radio at his waist. A few years ago, the radio was his only link to the outside world. He’d cloistered himself inside his apartment for three years, took to bed and only left once a day to eat. Thoughts of suicide taunted him.
Thanks to therapy, he’s partially emerged from his emotional cocoon. “Not completely,” he said. “I’m a work in progress. I still put my headphones on and zone out when things bother me.”
He’s involved in a number of physical activities via the VA: archery, fencing, yoga and regular visits to a therapy horse ranch. He’s joined a gym, takes marshal arts classes, lifts weights and swims.
The nightmares still come, but he no longer thinks of suicide. “Every second I’m alive is good,” said Gonzalez, who sent a card and note to the Family &Veterans Advocacy Clinic to express his gratitude. “You are training elite attorneys. Y’all are the very best!” he wrote.
“I sincerely believe that. What they do here changed my life,” the veteran said. “They helped bring me back from oblivion.”
To support the Family & Veterans Advocacy Clinic with an endowed gift, contact Myke Holt, senior director of development for the Texas A&M School of Law, at (817) 212-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.