Last winter, Danica R. Gonzalves, JD '16, with The Veterans Consortium (TVC) and two volunteer GW Law students, Courtney Lutz, JD '19, and Kelly Cournoyer, JD '19, represented a female veteran in a discharge upgrade case. Their client, who was severely assaulted, stalked, and harassed by another service member, petitioned the Board for Corrections of Naval Records to have her "Other Than Honorable" discharge changed to a "General, Under Honorable Conditions" discharge.
"We didn't expect the judge's ruling at all," Ms. Lutz said.
The judge ruled in their client's favor, exceeding their expectations and changed her discharge to fully "Honorable", a higher characterization than requested.
"Our client, who endured extensive trauma, is now eligible for all the benefits and compensation she was promised," Ms. Gonzalves said. "Not only will this enable her to access VA benefits and make it easier to find work, but it also restores a sense of honor to the veteran."
Ms. Lutz, Ms. Cournoyer, and Ms. Gonzalves' work was supported by TVC's Discharge Upgrade Program; through this program, pro bono attorneys assist with the discharge upgrade applications to secure benefits eligibility for the veterans and restore dignity to our country’s warriors.
In 2017, Ms. Gonzalves received an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to build out the Discharge Upgrade Program. Since then, she has been working with GW Law students to take on cases that right injustices for veteran clients.
Ms. Lutz had previously worked with veterans at a nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, and both of her grandfathers had served in World War II, so she was excited to give back to a veteran in need. "I really missed working with veterans, so I jumped at the chance to be able to do that," Ms. Lutz said.
For Ms. Cournoyer, her experience growing up in a military family led her to look for opportunities to help veterans.
"Both Kelly and Courtney went above and beyond what was expected of them," Ms. Gonzalves said. "I love working with law students. Even though they're not getting paid or getting class credit for their work, they volunteer their time because they believe in the cause."
Ms. Lutz and Ms. Cournoyer received a Certificate of Commendation for their work on the case at TVC's Volunteer & Mission Partner Appreciation Reception. Ms. Gonzalves presented the awards to both students.
"Receiving the Commendation for our work was definitely unexpected," Ms. Cournoyer said. "When you work these kinds of cases, you’re not expecting awards or accolades. The reward is winning the upgrade for your client."
"Obviously, you don't do this work to get recognized. I was just looking around the room thinking, every person in this room should be getting an award over me," Ms. Lutz said. "It was a very humbling experience."
Both Ms. Cournoyer and Ms. Lutz said while receiving the award was a great honoring, the best part about their experience was knowing they were able to change their client's life for the better.
"The coolest part was our initial meeting with Danica at her office where we called our client," Ms. Cournoyer said. "It was a really memorable experience because the client was so excited to have Danica and the two of us listening and wanting to help her with her case."
Currently, Ms. Lutz is clerking for the DC Superior Court in the Landlord Tenants division. Ms. Cournoyer is an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County in New York. Ms. Gonzalves, coming off of a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship, is continuing her work at TVC.