When Cory Vigil came home from Iraq, the terrible things he had seen and done under orders came home with him, heavier than any overloaded pack.

Filled with hair-trigger anger caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, Vigil served six months in county jail on a felony assault conviction. While he was incarcerated, someone else continued to sign his unemployment claims and checks, running up a fraudulent $5,000 debt on his record, a debt he couldn’t possibly repay.

Today, thanks in no small part to Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law alumna Antoinette Balta (JD ’06, LLM ’11), president and co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans Legal Institute in Santa Ana, Vigil is mentally and financially stable and works as a veteran resource specialist for Working Wardrobes VetNet. He has a home in Rancho Santa Margarita and is hopeful that Balta’s efforts soon could result in the felony on his record being reduced to a misdemeanor. Balta earlier helped clear the fraudulent unemployment debt.

“I can’t even tell you how much that lady’s done for me. I don’t know if I would have made it. Sometimes I think I’d be dead or in jail,” said Vigil, a retired U.S. Navy gunner’s mate second class petty officer who went to Iraq twice, serving on visit, board, search and seizure teams in the Persian Gulf. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his contributions.

Many veterans in need

Antoinette Balta, Veterans Legal Institute, veterans, Fowler School of Law, public service

Antoinette Balta ’03 (JD ’06, LLM ’11) co-founder of Veterans Legal Institute

Vigil’s case is only one of about 3,650 the Veterans Legal Institute has handled since Balta and Dwight D. Stirling co-founded the nonprofit in 2014 to provide free legal assistance to homeless, at-risk, disabled and low-income current and former service members.

“A lot of the veterans we deal with have seen combat or been exposed to traumatic experiences,” said Balta, who first met Vigil while working for the Public Law Center in Santa Ana. “I felt this part of the population needed to be served uniquely.”

Sometimes that means being served by someone who understands what it means to wear a uniform, so Balta joined the California State Military Reserve and is a captain in the Judge Advocate General corps. Sometimes it means being represented by someone who doesn’t have the potentially intimidating bearing of a military lifer, a role pro bono lawyers and law students can fill.

Among OC’s ‘Most Influential’

Last year alone, Veterans Legal Institute helped more than 1,300 veterans, earning Balta and Stirling a place on The Orange County Register’s 100 Most Influential People in Orange County list for 2016.

“She has done really incredible things,” said Matt Parlow, dean of the Fowler School of Law. “She’s doing really impactful work with a very deserving client population.”

In addition to two law degrees, Balta earned her undergraduate degree in business administration at Chapman in 2003, and she frequently taps the Chapman pipeline. Dallis Warshaw (JD ’14) is a policy analyst for Veterans Legal Institute and Johannes Marler (JD ’16), a retired Marine, is a current clerk. There also is a regular flow of interns.

“They are fantastic,” Balta said. “The Chapman students stick out. They are hard-working and passionate about what we’re doing.”

Housing a major issue

The transition to civilian life can be particularly difficult in Orange County, where the average monthly rent exceeds the average veteran’s monthly income. Homelessness and suicide among veterans are at crisis levels, with the latest data from the Department of Veterans Affairs citing an average of 20 veteran suicides per day in the U.S.

In addition to housing cases such as preventing evictions that can lead to homelessness, Veterans Legal Institute often handles cases that help veterans receive the benefits they are due, sometimes by helping upgrade less-than-honorable discharges received because of extenuating circumstances, such as PTSD or being a victim of sexual abuse while in the service. In another case, the firm helped a veteran secure a divorce from an abusive husband to protect herself and her child.

Because veterans might not realize they can get free legal assistance or might be too intimidated to walk into a law office, Balta and her colleagues find them.

“We go to veteran hotspots,” she said.

Veterans Legal Institute holds frequent sessions such as a monthly “Military Monday” at a Starbucks in downtown Santa Ana and events at the Veterans Administration Long Beach Hospital, the North Orange County Vet Center and Saddleback College, which has a large veteran population because of nearby Camp Pendleton.

Volunteers and donors needed

Balta and Stirling could never do all the legal work with just their group of five paid attorneys and four paid administrators. That’s why Balta’s particular skill of twisting arms with a megawatt smile comes in handy.

“We use over 200 volunteers a year,” she said, from practicing attorneys who take on pro bono cases to new lawyers, lawyers between jobs and students as young as high school age. Grant writers, website designers and graphic designers are welcome too, and a recent fundraiser drew about 300 people, with a lavish silent auction that included a chance to drive a Sherman tank.

Balta entered law school hoping to do public interest work, but student loan debt sent her into private practice. But she married young and as her husband’s business success grew, she seized the opportunity to change her focus.

“Believe it or not, I work more hours now than I worked when I was in private practice,” she said, estimating she works 50 to 70 hours a week. “You become emotionally invested in the work. You’re not financially driven. It’s empowering to be able to help these people.”

Display image at top: Antoinette Balta, a captain in the JAG corps of the California State Military Reserve, instructs other members of the military on legal issues surrounding use of force. (Courtesy of Antoinette Balta)