At NYLS, Jenna D’Attilo 3L has channeled her personal commitment to veterans’ issues, inspired by her father’s story, into a rewarding professional pathway.
D’Attilo is President of NYLS’s Military Justice and Veterans Association and a student member of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Military Affairs and Justice. She’s also a long-term intern with the Veteran’s Practice at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and an alumnus of NYLS’s Veterans Justice Clinic.
While D’Attilo is not a veteran herself, she is deeply invested in veterans’ issues. Her father, a U.S. Marine, was just a teenager when he was tasked with cleaning battlefields during the Vietnam War. As a result of the experience, he coped with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder for most of D’Attilo’s childhood before being connected to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) resources.
“It was like night and day after he got the diagnosis and started treatment,” D’Attilo says. “When his PTSD was untreated, the symptoms were hard on the whole family.”
In D’Attilo’s NYLAG internship, she regularly meets other veterans who may be experiencing similar struggles. Her work involves helping veterans preserve housing and secure government benefits, such as VA disability benefits and public assistance, sometimes on appeal. Many of NYLAG’s clients have low incomes, may be facing homelessness, and struggle with mental health challenges.
“I see my father in a lot in the clients, when they’re hard to talk to or don’t want to talk about the real problem,” she says. “Now I’m able to recognize that it’s a symptom of trauma. I can say to them, ‘I’ve lived through what you’re living through but on the other side.’”
The internship opportunity arose after D’Attilo discovered a passion for legal services work in NYLS’s Veterans Justice Clinic, part of The Joe Plumeri Center for Social Justice and Economic Opportunity. An attorney working with the clinic recruited her to a summer internship at NYLAG. NYLS’s Public Interest Summer Funding program provided a stipend that allowed her to take on the otherwise unpaid role.
“I’ve heard this work described as anti-poverty law, and I think that’s exactly right,” D’Attilo says. “It can be life-changing.” She described an emotional phone call with a client for whom NYLAG was able to secure over $140,000 in back-awarded benefits.
As President of NYLS’s Military Justice and Veterans Association, D’Attilo has spearheaded a new fundraising effort to support Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit that builds “comfort homes,” where military and veterans’ families can stay while their loved one undergoes medical treatment. The idea was suggested by fellow member Earl Loria 2L Evening. Under D’Attilo’s leadership, the group has expanded to around 20 NYLS students and provides study resources and mentoring to veterans on campus.
Though she originally planned to pursue a forensic science role and is completing NYLS’s J.D./M.A. in Forensic Psychology joint degree program, D’Attilo is now firm in her decision to focus her legal career on veterans’ rights.
“I love this work, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says.
Editor’s Note: NYLS and D’Attilo wish to recognize the efforts of the entire NYLS Military Justice and Veterans Association Executive Board: Abby Cannon 2L (U.S. Navy), Janille Esquilin 2L Evening, Gabriel Marshall 2L (U.S. Army), William McGovern 2L Evening (U.S. Army National Guard), John O’Sullivan 3L, and John Whitaker 3L (U.S. Army Reserve).