Vetting

Nicole Heffel helps female vets in trouble

Published in 2017 San Diego Super Lawyers — February 2017

Two years ago, when Air Force veteran Michelle Redd was released from jail after serving time for credit card fraud, she was, in her own words, “a hot mess.” She was addicted to meth, suffered from nerve damage as a result of childhood abuse, and had few options other than crime. Then she met La Jolla attorney Nicole Heffel, who had recently started a program at the San Diego County Jail to assist female veterans. Their first meeting was brief. Two months later, Redd was back in jail and nervous about facing Heffel again.

“Michelle came into class waiting for me to lay into her like a drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket,” Heffel says. “But I told her I don’t have the right to do that.” 

Instead Heffel told her, “I didn’t have enough time with you.”

That had a profound effect on Redd. She agreed to meet with Heffel each Friday for two hours. During those sessions Heffel mentored her; she helped Redd confront difficult family issues and apply to college.

“Nicole’s class literally saved my life,” says Redd, who’s been in recovery for more than a year and is now studying for her B.A. in psychology at San Diego City College.

Redd is one of many veterans Heffel has helped. A Navy vet herself, Heffel served in military law enforcement for five years before getting her J.D. at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Not long after, she watched a longtime friend and fellow vet become homeless and mired in legal problems. Realizing there were many other vets in the same situation, Heffel, whose practice focuses on estate planning and personal finance, vowed to help. Working with the American Combat Veterans of War, she donated more than 1,500 hours of legal assistance, and was awarded the California State Bar President’s Pro Bono Award in 2015 for her efforts. 

She noticed a striking gap. “I kept asking: ‘What are you doing for women veterans who are incarcerated?’ And they kept saying there aren’t enough to maintain a program. And I said, ‘If there’s one, that’s enough, and she’s worth it.’”

So in 2015, at the Las Colinas Detention Facility, Heffel started a program called She’s Worth It. The classes she led were a mix of life coaching and general assistance. Heffel helped with details like applying for VA benefits, helping set up foster care for an inmate’s children, finding beds in treatment facilities, filling out tax forms, and even arranging peer-to-peer counseling to help them deal with sexual abuse.

The issue of sexual harassment is a deeply personal one for Heffel. While stationed in Greece, she was sexually harassed by a fellow serviceman. After reporting the incidents, Heffel was retaliated against and charged with fraternization. “They said I was a cancer on the command, that I’d called it upon myself because I had a ‘bubbly personality.’”

This double standard continues into civilian life. Recently, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department canceled Heffel’s re-entry program for female vets, claiming it served too few inmates, even as re-entry programs for male vets at the jail remain well funded. “They’ve got programming seven days a week, with all the service flags, big murals and all the works,” she says. “So the males are really getting wonderful, in-custody treatment to help them successfully re-enter society.”

Here, particularly, Heffel believes a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. The women, she says, “can’t get healed when they’re in the same classes with men. A lot of them have been raped. And so they’re in there with—let’s be honest—not society’s finest group of men. They’re being retraumatized and can’t open up. And when they’re not healing, they’re relapsing.”

Heffel has started a nonprofit, Women Veterans Engaging the Nation (WoVEN), and is lobbying the California assembly to pass legislation protecting the rights of female veterans. On top of that, she’s trying to build a second firm focused on online will and estate planning documents. It’s a heavy workload, but success stories like Redd’s make it worthwhile. 

“Nicole loved me like I was,” Redd says. “She didn’t judge me, she didn’t look down her nose at me. Knowing that Nicole’s going to see me in my cap and gown—there’s nothing on the face of this earth that makes me more proud.” 

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