Please tell us about how and why you started the Veterans Law Clinic
The then-Student Bar Association President, Rich Curley ’98, a Vietnam Vet, was having trouble with his VA claim. He found out about my [U.S. Marine Corps] Physical Evaluation Board experience and asked if I’d supervise in helping other disabled veterans. This was 1997… I knew enough to be helpful. Our first client was the wife of a WWII vet who committed suicide.
Have the students changed over the years?
Morale has always been very high. The students have always been very interested in working with live clients, and they have great empathy for the vets we represent. We started small. Rich was one intern, and we took on a few more the next year. What new challenges are our veterans facing?
Veterans as group are diverse. There are twenty-three million from age eighteen or nineteen to one hundred and from all wars from World War II forward. Over three million receive disability compensation…That number is rising as people are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with a greater number of disabilities than their predecessors, including PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury].... Vietnam era veterans are aging. They’re an older population with increasing medical needs. They’re also filing claims.
What do we see? A greatly increased numbers of vets. Losses in their numbers are being filled from our new all-volunteer military. Diagnostic techniques are much better than many years ago. PTSD cases get picked up faster. The system we have in place allows active duty servicemen and women to file a VA claim. It often takes 3.5 yrs to process. There’s an increasing number of claims, fewer VA personnel to handle them, and no budget increases—the VA is getting slower and slower.
If a claim is denied by regional office, the veteran will file an appeal with the Washington board of appeals—that takes 3 years to be processed. [In that time] the veteran loses the use of the benefit—it doesn’t earn interest; they don’t put it to use. What the opportunity cost is for all this, no one has mentioned. What do you do in the ensuing times? Nobody has any solution that has universal acceptance. We have a system of claim development and adjudication that originated in 1863 and which has gone without significant modification since that time. We have two disability systems running—military disability and VA compensation—in many cases reaching different conclusions based on the same evidence. I have cases where the VA says the client is disabled and the military says he’s fit for duty. You can receive VA and military disability benefits simultaneously. The Department of Defense budget line to cover these benefits does not exist.
We had a client who was a medical tech in the army and discharged for unsuitability. She showed up at VA with galloping schizophrenia. She remains totally and permanently disabled. The army said she was fit for duty based on a 15-minute exit interview with a psychiatrist. He called it “adjustment disorder.” Is this sane? No, but if your goal is to keep the costs low, then it makes sense.
Part of problem is the way we pay benefits. We have in the system a method developed in 1945 and that’s rarely been updated. Vets are rated on % that disability impairs your ability to earn a living. This deals with manual labor—farm, factory, construction—not what you’re [the writer is] doing now: keyboarding, that kind of thing. The system is not accounting for the current workforce. The reward structure is out of sync with reality. But there’s not much impetus to change. Everyone is used to the current system; no one wants to modernize. We should base it [disability] on total life impairment. We need an overhaul of the system.