Issue 55 Lady Justice: Antoinette Balta John Schwartze Join the Conversation The Legal System is a Proverbial Minefield That Harms Far Too Many Servicemembers. That is, Unless You Have Someone Like Antoinette Balta Representing You and Clearing a Path to Victory with Veterans Legal Institute. There’s an old saying, “Justice is expensive. How much do you want?” In other words, being able to navigate endless hurdles of red tape requires either a law degree or enough money to pay for someone who has one. Imagine for a second you’ve been injured in combat, seen your friends killed, feel stripped of any sense of purpose, and must reintegrate with civilians who feel indifferent to your sacrifice. Many of you reading this may already understand that plight. Having that feeling compounded by bureaucracy to receive the benefits you’re entitled to is an injustice no one should have to suffer. Our servicemen and women who get wrapped around the axle of legal rigmarole can often become just another statistic of PTSD, homelessness, or suicide. Does that make you mad? It should. In fact, it compelled Antoinette Balta to focus her expertise into eradicating these complexities. As cofounder of Veterans Legal Institute (VLI), she’s taking hopelessness out of the judicial equation. When you’re used to serving others, it can be difficult to ask for help or even know who to ask. VLI exists to provide pro bono legal assistance to homeless and low-income current and former servicemembers to help them receive the access to housing, education, employment, and healthcare they're entitled to. We spoke to Antoinette about what motivated her to work on behalf of those who’ve put their lives on the line for all of us. RECOIL: Did you come from a military family? Antoinette Balta: My father immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1970s. Prior to that, he fought against religious persecution and was in combat. Growing up with a hard-working father who rarely spoke about his combat experiences and displays an incredible amount of American patriotism, taught me to better understand those who give of themselves for their nation. MG (CA) Jay Coggan, MAJ (CA) Antoinette Balta, and BG (CA) Denton Knapp at a ceremony at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California. Tell us about your military experience and what inspired you to join. Antoinette Balta: I served in the California State Guard for over six years, first as a reserve JAG officer and then as a Marketing Officer holding the rank of Major, committed to assisting with the rebranding of the California Military Department. I was inspired to serve because, as a first-generation American who (pre-pandemic) regularly visits other countries, I’m acutely aware of the blessings that our great nation has bestowed upon us. I’m mindful of the freedoms I enjoy, many of which are partially unique to the United States and other progressive countries, and do not take them for granted. I’m the first woman in my family to obtain a four-year degree and the first person in my family to be awarded an advanced degree. Without the support of a hard-working family and the opportunities provided by a forward-thinking nation, my education and career would be naught. I believe service can come in many forms, but out of an abundance of gratitude for our nation, my mindset has always been set on paying it forward, be it through military service, my nonprofit career, my role as an active community member, or in the way I’m raising my family. Simulated combat training and learning emergency medical response. What made you want to become a lawyer? Antoinette Balta: Being exposed to and aware of harsher lifestyles around the globe, I was always mindful of my blessings. I wanted a position that afforded me the opportunity to make change and meaningful impact. As a younger person, my parents instilled in me the belief that I could be anything I wanted with the right education, and I found my love for public interest work growing. Throughout my youth, I spent significant time volunteering and was hoping to merge my philanthropic interests with my future career. While I couldn’t afford to be a public interest attorney as a fresh, newly minted lawyer (as legal aid attorneys make significantly less), after a few years of private practice, some wise investments, and with the support of my family, I was able to follow my dream and work in public interest. After practicing for approximately nine years, I was able to develop the Veterans Legal Institute (VLI), a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to local low-income and homeless veterans, active servicemembers, and reservists. Through the power of legal advocacy, at VLI we are able to remove barriers to housing, healthcare, education, and employment and lift up our heroes in need into self-sufficiency. Where did you go to school? Antoinette Balta: I hold a degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing and management from Chapman University School of Business as well as a Juris Doctor with a special certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution and an LL.M. emphasizing in business and economics from Chapman University Fowler School of Law. I’m also a graduate of the 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholars Class, a prestigious program that serves as a catalyst for a diverse network of leaders brought together to collaborate and make a difference in the world, as they learn about leadership through the lens of the presidential experiences of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson. During my tenure in this program, I focused on the improvement and further development of mobile legal clinics for low-income veterans — a project that’s shared freely throughout the nation to promote additional services for veterans in need. Surrounded by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at the 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholar graduation. After you graduated, what area of law did you enter? Antoinette Balta: Post-graduation, I remained working for a small firm where I had been employed throughout law school and practiced real estate, business, and civil litigation. I went on to become a partner at that firm prior to launching my public interest career. Tell us what led to the creation of Veterans Legal Institute. Antoinette Balta: Being a passion-driven person, I knew that I wanted to work in public interest and assist vulnerable populations. I felt that using my law degree would be a meaningful way to accomplish positive change. Once I was financially able to transition from private work, I applied for an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship (think Teach-for-America, but for attorneys). I was granted the fellowship and took a two-year position with a local legal aid focusing on homelessness, economic empowerment, and nonprofit development. Noticing an influx of servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking shelter at a local National Guard armory, I discovered that many issues that contributed to these veterans’ chronic homelessness were legal in nature and required the assistance of an attorney. So, moved by the fact that the men and women who had served the country abroad were now struggling, I committed myself to the cause of removing “chronic” from “homelessness” and empowering veterans into self-sufficiency. I approached my then-supervisor at the local legal aid and requested to transition my fellowship to wholly serving veterans. His response was that if I could get the funder to agree, he would support the project. Fortunately, the powers that be at Equal Justice Works accepted my application to convert my fellowship to helping solely veterans, and that experience became the launchpad of my public service career and eventually led to my cofounding of Veterans Legal Institute. Since the incorporation of VLI in 2014, we have close to 15 employees, utilize over 200 volunteers per year, have close to 10,000 volunteer hours per year, and have served over 8,000 veterans. My overall goal is to create a legacy of empowerment and hope, highlighting the importance of never forgetting those who defend the freedom that we all enjoy. Pictured alongside board chair Marc Hankin in Washington DC, Veterans Legal Institute was awarded the prestigious, national “Vettys” Veterans' Choice Award. What does your practice focus on? Antoinette Balta: Veterans Legal Institute is a nonprofit law firm that provides a wide array of civil legal assistance to include complex veteran benefit appeals; discharge upgrades for those who have survived military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and other injustices; limited family law, bankruptcy, and consumer law assistance; immigration (yes, many veterans, even those in combat, are green card holders and not American citizens); landlord-tenant law; estate planning for older adult and terminally ill veterans; and more. Veterans Legal Institute has made strategic partnerships to include one with Volunteers of America (VOA) and one with the Tierney Center for Veteran Services at Orange County Goodwill. VOA provides housing assistance to at-risk and homeless veterans and received Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs. VLI subgrants from this organization and effectively tag-teams with their team of social workers and veteran navigators, so that when a veteran receives a three-day notice or is at risk of becoming homeless, VLI can support them from the legal end. Having funds to support settlement and work with the landlord, we have found that it’s significantly easier to keep a veteran and his or her family housed through collaboration. To date, VLI has supported over 200 veteran families through this collaboration, with the majority remaining safely housed as a result. Homelessness is complex, and what many don’t understand is that it’s significantly easier, cheaper, and better for family health to keep a veteran family housed and prevent eviction than to assist a veteran once the veteran becomes homeless. Once a veteran becomes homeless, having an eviction on their record in Orange County, California, where affordable housing is in short supply, coming up with moving and storage fees, security deposit, and first and last month’s rent, is an incredible barrier to housing. Homelessness also creates other less spoken about challenges — it breaks families apart, creates disruption for children who have to sleep in cars or move out of their school district, etc. VLI also partners with and is actually co-housed with the Tierney Center for Veteran Services, which is a one-stop shop for veterans who can speak with several different service providers to provide holistic support. VLI, the Tierney Center, and its other nonprofit occupants oftentimes provide warm referrals all within the same building, improving the veteran’s likelihood of overall, well-rounded success. What do you think are the most common legal challenges faced by current and former servicemembers? Antoinette Balta: Legal challenges are largely dependent on the veteran, the era they served in, and where they live, with significant overlap. In my experience, areas that veterans need significant support include complex veteran benefit appeals, family law, discharge upgrades, DMV/traffic/expungement, and landlord-tenant. Below is a breakdown of the areas of practice from 2020 that VLI worked on for your reference: What are the typical examples of red tape and inadequacy that servicemembers experience with the legal aid provided by the military? Antoinette Balta: Active servicemembers have access to their Judge Advocate or JAG officer. Once a servicemember separates from the military and becomes a veteran, he or she no longer has that same access to JAG. The majority of servicemembers enlist right after high school and come out four years later, while their civilian counterparts are already graduating from college. As a result, they have less financial power, and when they come across a legal issue, many oftentimes find themselves unable to access the very justice they fought to defend. Legal aid is difficult to fund — it’s not easy to find private donors who understand the power of legal aid. Many times, people have said to me “Why would a homeless veteran need an attorney?” to which I respond: Well, to apply for her veteran benefits so that she can access the healthcare she needs and give her economic stability is just one of many ways to empower a veteran into self-sufficiency through a legal advocate. Oftentimes legal issues prevent homeless and low-income veterans from accessing housing, healthcare, education, and employment, so they become stuck in a cycle of poverty. Clients at Veterans Legal Institute are able to meet one on one with an attorney to discuss their legal issues. Are there any cases you’ve taken on that stand out in your mind as classic examples of how the legal system is failing our servicemembers? Antoinette Balta: In a post Vanessa Guillen world, it’s no longer a secret that sexual trauma is prevalent in the military. For years, legal aids have been fighting these cases trying to prove that unjust circumstances led to less than honorable discharges for survivors of military sexual trauma. All too often, the perpetrator faced no consequence, while the person subject to the MST was ostracized by his or her peers and even separated from the military. Veterans Legal Institute has a robust discharge upgrade unit that primarily focuses on military sexual trauma and bringing justice to survivors. Do you feel there’s been a degradation of legal entitlements for servicemembers over the last 50 years? If so, what do you think caused that? Antoinette Balta: While we live in a country with increased extreme partisanship, one of the few areas that both the red and blue can meet and break bread over is the treatment of our servicemembers. Veterans’ issues seem to be something that both sides of the aisle can agree on and as a result, modern-day veterans are treated significantly better than their Vietnam and Korea-era veteran counterparts. I credit those who came before us, specifically veterans themselves, who shed light on their service to our great country and the sacrifice necessary for our freedom. History and media sharing stories of the great sacrifices our veterans make has supported the cause. Further, patriots within our legislature have been able to make the case for those heroes who serve our nation. Antoinette's hobbies include heading to the range and testing out different weapons, including this Colt M4. If you could wave a magic wand and change what you think is broken in our legal system, what would that look like? Antoinette Balta: Even before looking at the legal system, in terms of veterans, I would love to see a faster turnaround time in determining their eligibility for benefits and discharge upgrades (which leads to benefits). Many times, it’s difficult to navigate the bureaucracy of the VA and its healthcare system, creating barriers to resources for our veterans. In particular, veterans who have mental health challenges, like PTSD or a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), struggle to submit their claim with evidence since you cannot see their illness like you could a broken leg. Frequently, veterans are denied service connection for their mental health issues, making them feel abandoned or invalidated by the very nation they served. While I cannot say that that’s a direct connection to the reason 22-plus veterans take their own life each day (more than in combat), I do suspect that not having the proper advocate or easy to navigate system can complicate one’s existing trauma. In terms of the legal system, our courts are so congested (now more than ever with the pandemic and court closures), that many times justice is prohibited due to financial barriers and time constraints. I’d love to see a system that more actively promotes mediation and alternative dispute resolution to better and more effectively assist with court congestion and litigant resolution. Through organizations like the Orange County Bar Association, which has over 8,000 members, and of which I’m a two-term board member, it’s exciting to see its work toward attorney civility and bringing together both bar and bench. Teaching attorney colleagues to maintain civility and respect leads to better communication and resolution of cases, which in turn saves client’s money and stress and decongests our court system. Bringing together judges and attorneys helps them understand one another better and communicate in a way where they learn more about how to improve our system. Do you think the military community is often targeted by groups masquerading as legitimate legal aid resources for servicemembers that are just total scams? If so, what are some warning signs that servicemembers should know about potential scams that are out there? Antoinette Balta: I think all vulnerable populations are targets to scams so it’s important for people to do their research before becoming involved with any program. Guidestar.org is a great place to start. There are some people who take pay for applying for and/or appealing veteran benefits claims and are unqualified, unaccredited, and take more than they are entitled to. I believe these are few and far between, but we have come across several, including assisting one client who was scammed out of $12,000. Veterans Legal Institute was able to retrieve his funds. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Any legal aid that wants to get paid is not a true legal aid, unless they have a low-bono model. I’d research the organization before providing personal information, see if they have a physical location, website, look them up on guidestar.org, and potentially see if they have other clients who’ve reviewed them. Practicing precision in both law and on the range. What can both military and non-military citizens do to push for positive legislation for our servicemembers? Antoinette Balta: Becoming involved with your local legislators and bringing to light the issues that you spot can create an incredible force of good for our servicemembers. It’s important to do the proper research and provide your legislators with ideas, research, statistics, and backup to make their jobs easier. You mentioned suicide. What other statistics do you think the general public really needs to wake up to in terms of the despair our servicemen and women are experiencing? Antoinette Balta: In November 2020, the VA released the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report that stated that the number of veteran suicides per day was 17.6 in 2018. The report states that the rate was similar in 2017. In 2019, then VA Secretary Wilkie was quoted as saying that 60 percent of those warriors who take their lives are not in VA. Antoinette Balta Hometown: Boston and then moved at a young age to Southern California Family: Married with two children Favorite superhero: Mother Teresa Recommended reading list: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende In the Name of Identity by Amin Maalouf Favorite quote: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” — Lao Tzu Favorite singer: Shakira and Karl Wolf Most unrealistic lawyer TV show of all time: Eek … I don’t watch those shows. Favorite winery: Daou URL: VetsLegal.org Photos by Joey Skibel More from RECOIL Magazine Year after year, Americans prove that the Second Amendment isn't going away. Here's the testimony. Young Americans are Turning Away from Gun Control. American Contingency has faced some of the greatest Censorship to date. No One Is Coming To Save You: RuneNation on Personal Ownership in the Age of Censorship. 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