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Advocates Explore "Thank You For Your Service" At Veterans Conference

Human rights issues directly affecting veterans, those still active in the military and their families were dicussed in a day-long conference at the University at Buffalo Friday, hosted in partnership with the New York State Division of Veterans' Services.

The conference, known as Thank You For Your Service, sought to go deeper than the commonly used phrase, as Benjamin Pomerance, deputy director for program development with the state's Veterans Services office, explained.

"What does it mean when someone's coming back from service, coming back into civilian life and looking for employment? They are facing barriers there, or barriers to housing," he said. "What about people in the public who don't understand things about a veteran's military service? That military cultural competency is lacking. What about veterans who identify as LBGTQ? In that community, they're facing significant barriers, especially now."

Those barriers include a current presidential administration which has moved to ban transgender people from military service. Overcoming Biases and Stereotypes was the first of four panel discussions held throughout the day at UB's Center for Tomorrow.

Stereotypes of the veteran coming home have often led to many finding great difficulty finding work. Anthony Kuhn, an attorney and managing partner with Tully Rinckey PLLC and an adjunct professor at the UB School of Law, admitted he struggled to find work after returning home from a 13-month tour overseas and, not knowing his rights, didn't take the steps to ensure his employer had work ready for him to resume upon his coming home.

"Somewhere around a million service members have deployed, and left their families and left their civilian jobs to go overseas and defend the United States and many of them return home to discrimination," Kuhn said. "Often it's employment-based discrimination."

Other topics included reintegrating veterans in civilian life; legal, ethical and social aspects of veterans' physical and mental health; and advocacy for veterans within the criminal justice system.

Kim Diana Connolly, a professor at UB's School of Law and a moderator in one of the panel discussions, told WBFO that part of their education is readying those would later advocate for the needs of veterans in the field.

"We're also excited to be educating the new generation of lawyers," she said. "We have people who are enrolled in the veterans legal practicum as student-advocates, soon to be attorneys, who are learning a deeper set of laws through our course. Even more than people who are in the field today, so we're very excited about that."