Military Mondays: Bringing Legal Expertise to Veterans in Starbucks

While reading TIME magazine earlier this year, Patricia Roberts was intrigued by a casual aside in the 3,500-word cover story about Starbucks. The passing observation that "more people live near a Starbucks than a Veterans Administration facility," resonated with her.

A clinical professor of law at William & Mary - the second oldest college in the nation - Roberts is also director of the institution’s Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic. In the latter role, she oversees a program whose primary function is to assist veterans filing claims for disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs. More broadly, she strives to break down barriers between veterans and active-duty service members and their communities.

Roberts reached out to Starbucks chairman and ceo Howard Schultz and soon heard from Unique Turner, Starbucks district manager for the Hampton Roads region in southeastern Virginia. Turner is also president of the Southeast Chapter of the Starbucks Armed Forced Network. The AFN supports transitioning service members, reservists and military spouses at Starbucks, while striving to create a veteran-friendly workplace.

Together, Roberts and Turner came up with "Military Mondays" to engage the community in conversation and offer free legal counsel, Military Mondays kick off today (June 29) at the McLaws Circle Starbucks® store in Williamsburg, Virginia, and will take place every other Monday from 1 to 5 p.m. Turner selected McLaws Circle Starbucks as the location because the coffeehouse is large enough to accommodate a sizable gathering, yet can be sectioned off to create a sense of intimacy. It’s also in the backyard of William & Mary, making it convenient for Puller Clinic faculty and students.

A Natural Alliance

For Roberts, Starbucks made perfect sense as a location to meet with clients in need of assistance filing for military benefits. “I thought, that’s a non-threatening place, there’s a Starbucks near almost everyone and our students love Starbucks.I love Starbucks," she said.

She felt if veterans were invited to the comfortable environment of a Starbucks store in their community, they might be more inclined to reach out for help. Also, it would be more convenient for veterans to find Starbucks than to have them visit the campus of William & Mary and reach out to the law school.

“The idea was to continue the conversations that Howard Schultz’s book [For Love of Country, co-written with Rajiv Chandrasekaran] started. We're hoping to increase awareness in our civilian population about what our military members and their families sacrifice to protect our country,” Roberts added.

In Turner, Roberts found a likeminded ally. A seven-year Starbucks partner, Turner is deeply connected to the Hampton Roads area, which is home to upwards of 100,000 active-duty and reserve military personnel, as well as thousands of veterans. She also married into a military family and is familiar with the challenges her in-laws encountered.

“When you’re in this community, it’s hard not to become connected with the military,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten a chance to understand the military family as well as the military community.”

Navigating the Paper Maze

The Puller Law Clinic was started in 2008 by two William & Mary alumni and former members of the Judge Advocate General Corps who realized that, despite their legal training, they even had trouble deciphering the VA's paperwork and the process. The bulk of the services clinic provides center on helping veterans navigate the complexities of applying to receive benefits they’ve earned. "The process can be overwhelming to a layperson," said Roberts.

One of the many advantages of the legal assistance program, from Roberts’s perspective, is that it matches undergraduates who are eager to develop their skills with clients in need of their enthusiasm and expertise.

“Law students can provide assistance in a way that surpasses even experienced lawyers because of the tremendous time and creativity they can put into each case,” said Roberts. “In one instance, a student found a video online that supported what a veteran reported experiencing. We also have a Vietnam veteran who served in Thailand, so our student has found an old map of that base we can use as evidence to prove he had access and exposure to herbicides that were used outside the base perimeter that caused his current disabilities.”

Both women hope that Military Mondays at Starbucks expands, both geographically and in its mission.

“I don’t think we could be a better pair, based on all the work they have done to support veterans and the military community,” said Turner. “I think, when you compare [the Puller Clinic] with other things Starbucks has done and continues to do, our values are very similar.”

Photos by: Stephen Salpukas, College of William & Mary

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