Law Students Host Panel on Veterans' Issues

Second-year law student Alexia Noble knows full well the frustrating challenges veterans and their families can face in obtaining benefits. Her grandfather, Timothy B. Hatter, still had not received full compensation for frostbite injuries sustained in World War II when he passed away two years ago. In fact, he died 13 days after obtaining just 40 percent of the compensation he was due. Noble’s grandmother, Sallie Hatter, had helped him file for benefits in 2003. However, two more years would pass after his death before she finally received all of his benefits, which fortunately included compensation for the long wait. 

Inspired by this experience, Noble—who is the social action chair for the Black Law Students Association—decided to organize a panel to discuss benefits and other issues veterans face after leaving active duty. The event, which was co-sponsored by the Student Veterans Association, featured benefits law experts and a retired employee from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

The first hurdle the panel addressed was veterans’ awareness of benefit programs. Second-year law student and U.S. Navy veteran John Berosky noted that the process has improved since Hatter’s day, but still could use some improvements. The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) answers questions for exiting service people, Berosky said, but he noted that veterans still need to fill out claims forms. The burden is also on the veterans to seek out benefits. 

Berosky’s experience contrasted sharply from that of another panelist, Rebecca Nickelson, a partner at HeplerBroom LLC. She had brought her father, Vietnam War veteran Ronald Van Pelt, to provide additional context on the topic. 

“He had no knowledge of the benefits he was eligible for after coming back from Vietnam,” she said. “He had no indoctrination. He was shoved out the door with no information about what to do next.” 

Van Pelt recalled: “I felt worse than an outcast—I was called a ‘warmonger.’” He added that he is still trying to obtain compensation for diabetes, which is known to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. “A lot of my friends at the American Legion are in the same boat,” he said. 

Sadly, an even bigger barrier to benefits is the veteran’s ability to prove that he or she actually served or had been discharged from the service, said Brigid Fernandez, an elder law attorney with Martha C. Brown & Associates LLC. “There are roadblocks from the very start,” she said. 

Nickelson agreed: “My father didn’t have records showing what he did in the military. He found a fellow service member to submit a ‘buddy affidavit’ to demonstrate the locations where he had been in the service.” 

Marylynn Sims, a retiree from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said that for many veterans leaving the service, their focus is on getting a job, not long-term benefits. “They are typically not interested in all the services that are available at that time,” she said.         

Berosky added that another positive service TAP provides is job coaching. When he left the Navy, he also was given a “restatement of experience” to show how his military skills could translate to civilian jobs. Still, it can be a challenge if the veteran did not perform a specific, transferable job while in the service, he observed.  

Even more importantly, the nation at large has a lot to learn about the challenges—especially the mental health challenges—that veterans face, elder law attorney Wes Coulson said. 

“There needs to be acknowledgment of the link between the conditions veterans encountered in the service and the problems they are experiencing today,” he said. “The average World War II vet had about three mental or physical conditions affecting him or her. But veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom average almost 10 conditions.” 

Sims agreed that society does not yet understand the difficulties veterans face. “Many have mental health issues, homelessness, drug abuse, inability to keep a job, flashbacks, and violence at home or school,” she said. “We don’t recognize how traumatized soldiers are, and the debriefing they are given is not enough to treat them. This has to be addressed nation-wide.” 

Meanwhile, veterans encounter a lot of “red tape” when they seek benefits. This has become an even bigger problem because the Veterans Administration now has a “means test” to evaluate veterans’ eligibility for benefits. 

“It takes a lot of patience and perseverance for veterans to get the benefits they have earned,” Sims noted. 

Of her father, Nickelson observed: “Now, he couldn’t be prouder of his service in Vietnam, but he never talked about it when I was a kid. I would just like to see him live out his life with the benefits he deserves.” 

Coulson said he was motivated to pursue his area of law in by his father’s experiences with the military. “My dad died in a nursing home without ever getting benefits because his son didn’t know how to get them for his own father,” he said. “When I realized that I missed that opportunity to help my dad, I felt a responsibility to help others.” 

Nickelson stressed that elder care and veterans’ services provide opportunities for seeing the real-world application of legal principles. She suggested that students could make a difference simply by going to an American Legion hall and helping veterans navigate the VA’s website, explaining legal terminology, and/or just talking to them. 

“You have the opportunity to learn how their lives have been molded by their military experiences,” she said. “Just being able to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find an answer for you,’ can have a huge impact. They need to know that we understand they have made a sacrifice.” 

By Timothy J. Fox