Jacob Skoda ’24 is helping American servicemembers and veterans access benefits and guiding them to see their worth.
Skoda completed an internship with the NY Department of Veterans' Services under Deputy Commissioner for Program Development, Benjamin Pomerance ’13, through Albany Law School’s Veterans Rights Fellowship. As a U.S. Air Force veteran attending law school with military education benefits, the fellowship helped him with summer living expenses.
As part of the fellowship, he earned a Veteran Service Officer accreditation through New York’s Power of Attorney, which grants him the ability to plan, prosecute, and represent on behalf of a veteran.
He assisted a veteran with a discharge upgrade from Other-Than-Honorable Discharge due to self-medicating after experiencing sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder while deployed during Operation Desert Storm. He also assisted a police officer returning from active military status for training who was denied proper benefit reinstatements upon reemployment and was denied entitled paid leave. There was also a case of potential discrimination against service-disabled veterans in New York’s cannabis business licensing. In addition, he was involved with the duty of new recruits to disclose undiagnosed mental health conditions versus the duty of the military to discover such conditions, especially as related to fraudulent enlistment with an undiagnosed personality disorder. Finally, he researched the relationship between PTSD, personality disorders, comorbidity, misdiagnosis, and malingering.
“It's one of the very unique areas of the law that is uniquely pro claimant and anti-adversarial. The rest of the law is built on adversary and this side versus that side. But veteran law is this area of the law where the veteran has the benefit of the doubt and the agency has to support the veteran,” he said.
When discussing potential benefits with a veteran, they often need documentation of an illness or treatment to supplement the case. Many times, the stigma of being a resilient solider able to power through anything takes over, he said.
“A big problem in this area of law is that there are veterans with legal entitlements that they don't feel entitled to. They're not disabled enough in their own mind, or they didn't see actual combat when they were deployed or something. They're telling themselves that they don't deserve the benefits or they don't want to be treated like a broken soldier,” he said. “A lot of my advocacy work has been dealing with that as well as the mental health aspect.”
A similar mindset struck him when he was medically discharged from the Air Force after breaking his foot while he was a jet engine mechanic in Germany.
He received a call saying that he was entitled to some education benefits, including graduate school, and he was surprised to find out initially.
“That was my first exposure to the VA system. There’s this very interesting time period of transition between service member and veteran where you start to get your due process rights back. Because in the military you don't have due process, you sign that away when you join. But when you're a veteran, you have due process. A lot of times you'll have a service member whose due process was violated in the military, but they may not be aware that there's remedies available to them because during the transition period, they weren't made aware that their due process rights were returned.”
He was interested in law, but thought a paralegal certificate was all he might be entitled to.
“At first I was just going to go for a paralegal certificate. But then it was suggested like, "Why are you doing that? If your end goal is to be a lawyer, you don't need that stepping stone. You already have a bachelor's degree, just go to law school. We will pay for it. That's the whole point of the program." That was when, and I think back to those moments a lot in my role as a veteran service officer, because that was when my eyes were open to the entitlements that I wasn't previously aware of and it's life changing,” he said.
“I was self-selecting myself for a lower position when I was qualified to do more. And a lot of veterans, they count themselves out. They minimize the role they played for their scenario. It was very empowering to receive that phone call, finding out I could go to law school. And it's something that empowers me continuously and in turn is empowering other veterans.”