For the next two years, Danica Gonzalves, JD '16, will provide legal help to veterans who may not have access to healthcare, housing, and other benefits.
Danica Gonzalves, JD '16, an attorney at The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program in Washington, D.C., was awarded with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. She will begin her fellowship in September 2017, and her work will focus on Veterans' Rights. Ms. Gonzalves, who has a background in mental health law, health care, and disability rights, will work with the organization until 2019.
Ms. Gonzalves will be working on the Discharge Upgrade Program, which will provide nationwide pro bono legal services to veterans who received Other-Than-Honorable discharges due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). This discharge classification deprives veterans of VA benefits and compensation, limits their job prospects, damages reputations, and destroys self-esteem. She believes that PTSD/TBI-related injuries resulting from service should not preclude veterans from receiving these benefits, including access to the mental health care benefits they need. Professional legal representation is key as these veterans challenge this "injustice." Through the Discharge Upgrade Program, Ms. Gonzalves intends to combat the stigma of invisible illnesses, provide an essential service to those seeking a discharge upgrade, and restore honor to the nation's defenders. She estimates that she will be working on 100-200 cases in the next couple of years.
"The mental health aspect and the veterans is what really drew me to this program," Ms. Gonzalves said. Her interests in Veteran's Rights and mental health are a result of her family's connection to the military. In addition, she founded Active Minds during her 3L year, a GW Law student organization with the goal of raising mental health awareness on campus. Ms. Gonzalves also speaks at mental health advocacy events, discussing psychiatric disability, traumatic brain injury, and other different factors that pertain to mental health. Ms. Gonzalves knew that she wanted to stay within the public interest realm after graduating and said, "The best way to do that right out of law school is through fellowships."
After her fellowship ends, she hopes to continue to do work related to Veterans' Rights.
For students who are interested in public interest or who want to follow a similar path, Ms. Gonzalves offered a few words of advice. "I would encourage students that want to remain in pro bono and public interest work to just do it. They should pursue something that they are passionate about—something that inspires them" she said.
Regarding her work at the Veterans Consortium, Ms. Gonzalves shared that she enjoys talking to the veterans and helping them directly. "That is what makes me love my job and it gives me that life fulfilment," she said.
Ms. Gonzalves is the first Equal Justice Works fellow at The Veterans Consortium, which is celebrating its 25-year "Silver Anniversary" in 2017. Her project is sponsored by the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and AT&T.