Changing Veterans' Lives, One Pro Bono Case at a Time
Ron Potempa spent his career in the United States Navy ensuring “good order and discipline” as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. He enjoyed his job, but every now and then, Ron wished there was something more he could do to help a sailor caught up in the naval justice system. That’s why the retired lieutenant commander jumped at the chance earlier this year to do some pro bono work with the Veterans Consortium, helping a service member who did not receive an honorable discharge.
“Being a veteran, I know how important veterans’ benefits are and how anything other than an honorable discharge can interfere with your future,” says Ron, associate general counsel at Koch-owned Infor in Chicago. “This is exactly what I wanted to do — help someone who was in difficult circumstances so they can change their lives for the better.”
Ron was paired with Pamela Holland Councill of Alston & Bird, a Koch pro bono partner firm in Atlanta, through the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program (TVC). A nonprofit organization, which Koch has partnered with since 2020 as part of Koch's Pro Bono Initiative, TVC is devoted to providing former service members and their families free legal help in federal venues, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. TVC provides attorneys two hours of specialized training and can work on a variety of projects, including appealing unjustly denied benefits or compensation, or OTH (“other than honorable”) discharge upgrades.
A discharge upgrade can turn a veteran’s life around because service members who receive an OTH are at higher risk of homelessness, unemployment and suicide, says Courtney Smith, director of volunteer outreach and education at TVC.
“The discharge upgrade program helps people who received an OTH due to things like mental health, brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or military sexual trauma,” she says.
Ron and Pamela’s case involves a mental health issue stemming from sexual assault. The two attorneys each spent more than 40 hours over the past six months working on the upgrade claim. The client received a “general discharge” from the U.S. Air Force in 2005. She is seeking a discharge upgrade to gain access to benefits she’s been denied, including tuition assistance for graduate school, and to remove the stain from her military record.
“Despite their service, an OTH means they aren’t able to call themselves a veteran,” Courtney says. “For many, it’s a matter of being able to claim that status and demonstrate their commitment to serve their country as much as it is about receiving the disability compensation or accessing a Veterans Affairs home loan.”
Ron and Pamela’s client enlisted in the Air Force at 18 in response to 9/11 and initially, received nothing but outstanding reviews. She even won “Airman of the Quarter” during her first year. But later that year, she was sexually assaulted by another service member and became depressed. Eventually, she was diagnosed with PTSD and began self-medicating with drugs — and that drug use is what led to her discharge.
“The military has a zero-tolerance policy about some things, and there’s not a lot of empathy for anybody,” Ron says. “You violate the drug policy and you’re done.”
It’s Ron and Pamela’s job to explain why the circumstances in this case are important. “Some really bad things happened to a good person, and her record needs to be corrected,” Ron says. “We need to show the review board that this wasn’t black and white, there were mitigating factors that should be taken into consideration.”
Although the two lawyers have worked together on the appeal for six months, they’ve never met in person. Everything has been accomplished over email, phone calls and video conferences. The pair sifted through hundreds of pages of documents and medical records to craft their client’s appeal. Given the sensitive nature of the client’s history, Pamela worked one-on-one with her on her personal statement while Ron handled the petition. They filed the request for a discharge upgrade in October.
As a result of their efforts, and those of six additional Koch Industries’ attorneys who are currently working on other TVC cases, the veterans group recently named Koch one of its 2021 Pro Bono Mission Partner Award winners, which recognizes exceptional service by volunteer attorneys. The award recipients were recognized at a virtual ceremony Nov. 4.
“We are truly grateful and proud of the relationship we have with Koch,” Courtney says. “These attorneys are helping to change the direction of people’s lives. They embody who we are and our commitment to the men and women who served in the armed forces.”
Once they file the petition, Ron and Pamela — and their client — will have to wait as long as two years for the Air Force Discharge Review Board to make a decision. Both lawyers plan to pursue new cases in the meantime. This is Ron’s first case with TVC, but Pamela has worked on several others. “I think we have such an obligation to veterans because of their service to our country,” she says. “As an individual, I think where I can have the biggest impact is on a micro level like this, where I’m helping one person with something that can make a huge difference in her life.”
For Ron, the pro bono case is an extension of his work the Veterans Infor Network (VIN), a business resource group dedicated to the empowerment, attraction and support of veterans and their allies. It all goes back to his desire to continue serving his country and particularly, his fellow veterans. “I feel a strong desire to help if I have the ability to help,” he says. “I am very motivated to do my best and make a positive impact on their lives.”
What’s more, the pro bono work is just one of Koch's initiatives to help people improve their lives. “Since Koch acquired Infor, I’ve been exposed to the Koch philosophy of doing good things for the betterment, not just of Koch or its customers, but for people at large,” Ron says. “When I heard they were looking for pro bono help with a discharge upgrade, I wanted to raise my hand. It’s a good feeling when you’re spending all this extra time off hours and know your company supports your goals and your efforts.”
As a JAG officer, Ron frequently dealt with discharges that were less than honorable. He always felt compassion for service members who made a single mistake, like smoking cannabis, and ruined their careers. So, helping a fellow veteran has been personally satisfying.
“This wasn’t a mistake or a choice. It was something that never should have happened to anyone,” he says. “Unlike what I normally do as a corporate lawyer, this is a person, not a business. Being able to help a real human being with a life-changing issue is very, very important. Not to minimize my corporate work, but this has been my most rewarding case."