For veterans trying to access or receive their benefits, the process is all-consuming and draining. One Marine veteran lawyer is trying to change that.
Gustavo Mayen is no stranger to hardship and challenge. After immigrating to this country from Guatemala at just 10 years old with his family, he was unable to speak English and his integration into America was described as difficult in those early years. When he graduated high school, he found himself working three jobs and unhappy. To create a better life for himself, he made the decision in 2003 to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.
Despite being deployed to Iraq on multiple tours, he put himself through college — even in the midst of combat.
“I’m stubborn I guess,” Mayen said with a laugh.
He shared that when he heard the Marine Corps would pay for his schooling while he was in, he jumped on the opportunity. After his enlistment was over in 2008, he finished his bachelor’s degree and decided to go to law school. After graduating with his law degree and taking the bar exam, he was presented with an opportunity to be a consultant to the military. While he was overseas he received the news that he passed the bar.
Mayen was sworn in as an attorney for Massachusetts in the sands of Afghanistan.
He spent a year consulting with military leaders for a technology company and came back to be an associate for a law firm. It was there that Mayen realized he wanted to be his own boss. After starting his own law firm specializing in criminal defense, he wanted to make sure he could be successful at it. So, he went back to school yet again — this time to earn his master’s in business administration (MBA).
“When you come from nothing you learn to try and do everything,” he said.
Mayen shared that in his admission’s interview he had to describe a way that he used ingenuity and entrepreneurship to overcome a problem.
“I said it had to do with a piece of wire. They looked at me like ‘what do you mean’ so I had to explain that while we were over there [Iraq] the cable for the starter of the tank blew up. We were in a rough spot and scrounged everything to the middle of the floor and there was this wire. I said, let’s try it because otherwise we’d be in big trouble. It worked and we got out of there safely,” he said.
He was admitted into the program shortly after.
“I knew that I was very lucky and I kept being that exception. When I’d talk to veterans and tell them I was a lawyer, they thought I had been an officer. But I was as much of a grease monkey as you can get,” he said with a laugh.
Through research, he came across The Veterans Consortium: Pro Bono Program. It was here that he found his way of giving back and serving those who served. Mayen explained that when a veteran appeals a claim decline for benefits, they have around three tries. When their appeal makes it to the Court of Appeals of Veteran Claims, he can step in as a volunteer attorney.
“The biggest draw for that is it is their last resort … At this stage, the veteran gets his day in court and I’m there with them,” Mayen explained.
Three years later, he’s still there. He also shared that he has toy soldiers and each time he is able to help a veteran win a claim, he puts one on his mantel.
Mayen shared that he knows life isn’t perfect and he can’t win all of them — but that won’t stop him from trying. Three years later, he started examining other things he could do to serve. It was there he began fighting discharge labels.
“I know enough veterans that went to wars and came back with issues. When you are over there in the military, there isn’t a lot of room for weakness. But when you come home, it’s different,” he said.
While serving in combat or under challenging conditions, some veterans make mistakes like self-medication, Mayen explained. Then they are forced to get out of the military, sometimes under less than honorable conditions.
“They are trying to seek help and are told ‘We don’t recognize you as a veteran for this benefit’,” he said.
For those veterans, they are forced to get help on their own — forgotten by the military. So, he started learning how to fight it and help them where the military and VA wouldn’t. Especially in a generation where veterans are celebrated and Veterans Day is an honored tradition, Mayen finds the lack of help for veterans returning from combat zones to be unacceptable.
“Our generation had a better welcome back than Vietnam Veterans but people still say ‘thank you for your service’ and I say – what does that really mean? It has a lot to do with honor and it’s something that I am trying to help restore,” Mayen said.
It is because of this that he continues to fight for veterans to win their appeals.
Mayen shared that when he first started going to school even in the midst of combat, one Marine he shared a tank with in Fallujah asked him why he was doing it. Mayen responded that he wanted to become ‘someone.’ His fellow Marine challenged him with the reply, “Why not become someone who makes a difference instead.”
His reply has stuck with him and guided everything Mayen’s ever done since.Read comments