On July 16, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA) honored rising 3L Dan Sylvester with the Veteran of the Month Award, an accolade achieved through more than two decades of service, pro bono work and efforts on behalf of veterans. Sylvester's colleagues and friends from DePaul College of Law, including Dean Gregory Mark, Professor Bruce Ottley and Dean for Strategic and Community Alliances Francine Soliunas, attended the ceremony at Holland & Knight, where Sylvester works as a summer associate.
"Daniel Sylvester epitomizes the fact that veterans continue to serve after taking off the uniform," IDVA Director Erica Borggren told the crowd of attendees Monday evening. An 11-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Sylvester spent the larger part of the '90s as an army officer, was involved in humanitarian operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and garnered roughly a dozen military awards for achievement and merit. He has also worked with votevet.org and the Truman National Security Project to lobby Congress on veteran issues and national security.
"He has made a deep impact on Illinois veterans through his work at DePaul University College of Law," Borggren emphasized, "consistently advocating on their behalf."
Sylvester is the current president of the DePaul University College of Law’s Veterans Assistance Service Organization (VASO), which he founded last year. The student organization works with veterans and advocates on their behalf, while exploring how the law affects veterans.
His conviction makes a compelling case. Despite the College of Law’s small veteran population, DePaul has actively supported Sylvester in his efforts on behalf of Chicagoland veterans. “He’s here for a purpose and he knows what he wants to do,” commends Professor Bruce Ottley, whom Sylvester assists as research assistant. His commitment is undeniable; as a Veterans Administration-designated, level 3 primary caregiver for his spouse, a disabled veteran, Sylvester wears his heart on his sleeve.
Sylvester says he originally created VASO because he felt the college lacked a voice to take up veterans’ concerns, needs and issues. He envisioned a student organization that would increase awareness of DePaul University’s Office of Veterans Affairs, and capitalize on law students' expertise. "As I thought about it more," he explains, "I realized, with only a handful of veterans in law school here, we did not so much need a voice as we needed to engage the students in helping veterans that did need one."
Sylvester talked with his classmates about the idea and found the connecting thread; most students either had a veteran in the family or had friends who were. Thus, VASO was hatched with three goals in mind, the first two being to educate law students on the needs of veterans in the community and to nationally engage law students in providing assistance to veterans in the community, through guest speakers, fundraisers and community participation.
This past winter, in conjunction with PBCSI’s February Donate-a-Day, VASO helped orchestrate the 2012 Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center "Valentines for Veterans" Concert. More than 1,000 veterans, their families and members of the community attended the concert (read the full story), and Sylvester coordinated more than 50 hours. VASO's "Hobbies for Heroes" charity drive, donating over $450 in crafts to Jesse Brown VAMC in spring of 2012.
Through VASO, Sylvester also managed a "Wool for Warriors" clothing drive that produced more than $200 worth of new wool socks for homeless veterans. The "Crafts for Veterans" drive, held last spring, collected more than $200 in craft items for the Chicago VA Hospital.
The third element of Sylvester’s plan is currently in motion. He is working with College of Law administration on the development of a veterans legal clinic at DePaul. He hopes to complement John Marshall Law School’s clinic, which deals with veterans' benefits, by creating a clinic at DePaul that looks at other ways to take care of veterans. Sylvester envisions students assisting veterans with everything from expungements to landlord matters, acquiring hands-on experience while navigating the legal issues faced by veterans as they try to get back on their feet.
In the meantime, Sylvester and VASO are solidifying an externship program with the Jesse Brown VAMC for this upcoming school year, and establishing a biannual legal assistance day. Sylvester hopes to also expand on last November’s veterans week, which featured three guest speakers educating law students on veterans issues.
The official IDVA release, with a complete list of Sylvester's awards, is posted at Illinois.gov.