Veterans advocate says the government is not keeping its promise
COLUMBIA, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — The United States government owes a debt to its veterans for their service to the country, said Bart Stichman, special counsel to the not-for-profit National Veterans Legal Services Program.
“Unfortunately, the government has not kept that promise since the Vietnam War,” Stichman said.
He was the keynote speaker for Friday’s symposium on veterans’ issues presented by the University of Missouri School of Law Veterans Clinic: “Pushing the Envelope: Firsts in Advocacy for America’s Heroes.”
“The government made the decision not to pay the cost of war” after Vietnam, Stichman said.
His organization was able to get upgrades to discharges for more than 7,000 Vietnam veterans who received “less than honorable” discharges.
Those with less than honorable discharges aren’t eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits, and have a stigma attached to them that hurts job prospects.
The government lowered its requirements for military service to get more bodies to Vietnam and were surprised when not all performed well, he said.
“No other employer grades your performance when you leave and says you’re undesirable,” Stichman said.
Veterans were helped by the repeal of two laws, he said. One was a law that barred them from appealing VA denials to federal courts, resulting in 1988 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
The NVLSP has filed more than 5,000 appeals in the court, he said.
The other law repealed was an 1862 law that made it a federal crime for lawyers to charge more than $10 to represent a veteran in a claim.
“Probably our greatest victory has been the 1989 Nehmer case,” Stichman said.
It dealt with veterans who had negative health effects from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used heavily in Vietnam.
“The cause-and-effect connection the VA required stacked the deck, legally” against veterans in Agent Orange claims, he said.
A 1991 consent decree arising from the case has resulted in payment of more than $4.6 billion in retroactive payments to more than 100,000 Vietnam veterans and their survivors.
Congress approved the Agent Orange Act of 1991, he said.
A 1993 lawsuit provided more than $60 million in retroactive compensation to more than 600 Puerto Rican veterans with 100% disability, he said.
A class-action lawsuit filed by his organization resulted in the 2011 Sabo versus United States ruling. It increased the disability rating related to post-traumatic stress disorder for more than 2,200 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The military was low-balling the disability ratings so they didn’t have to pay,” Stichman said.
Another speaker was Mel Bostwick, a Washington D.C. attorney, who presented on “Advocating for Accuracy at the Federal Circuit Level.”
She was involved in a case that successfully extended benefits to 52,000 Navy veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange on ships.
“I continue to hear from veterans who are suddenly getting their claims granted” because of the ruling, Bostwick said.
One slide she presented showed the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
“Know your audience,” Bostwick said. “These are the 19 judges of the Federal Circuit.”
Only three were military veterans and they are on senior status, she said.
“Don’t assume knowledge on the part of your audience,” she said.
Very few veterans cases get to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.
“As you can see from this cover page, you have to have an absurd number of lawyers on your team” in a Supreme Court case, Bostwick said.
It’s also necessary to have a lot of amicus “friend of the court” briefs from all the major veterans’ groups in Supreme Court cases.
“It shows that everybody cares about the issue,” she said.
During a question-and-answer session, a student asked what her favorite thing about her work is.
“My job is to tell my client’s story, to get the court to understand why my client is so right,” Bostwick said. “It’s a lot of fun. You can make a difference.”
The symposium is meant to inform Missouri lawyers, law school students and advocates for veterans about issues, regulations, legal rulings and upcoming cases, said Angela Drake, director and supervising attorney for the veterans clinic.
“We use this opportunity to provide continuing legal education,” Drake said.
With the clinic, law school students interview clients and research laws, regulations and facts to help veterans receive their benefits.
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