Law students at Stetson University are stepping up to assist vets with complicated disability claims.
Not all disabled vets are taken care of as they should be when they have disabilities. Some vets report being so frustrated with the system that they’ve given up on trying to get coverage for their disability benefit claims. The government is overwhelmed – and vets have to wait years sometimes for their complex claims to be looked at.
The other obstacle: a Civil War-era law which makes it harder for them to get proper legal representation.
Veterans with routine claims can get help from organizations like the American Legion or Disabled Veterans of America, but complex claims and appeals require legal expertise, and sometimes more evidence, according to Stacey-Rae Simcox, director of the Stetson College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
“There were a lot of congressional hearings after the Civil War that some attorneys weren’t ethical, right, and scamming veterans,” she said. “Since then, there have been a lot of strict policies about when attorneys are allowed to help veterans in the process for pay.”
Because of that law, a veteran is prohibited from paying an attorney to help file their disability benefits claim or appeal an initial VA denial.
The Stetson Advocacy clinic has become somewhat of a “refuge of last resort” for veterans who have had trouble with their VA claim. It’s a win-win for everyone — for the VA and the vets. The students are hungry for experience, so they benefit from this too, Simcox says.
Patrick Iyampillai a third-year law student has worked on many veterans cases, some that date all the way back to the 1980s. Last fall, he presented cases before a veterans’ law judge who traveled to the St. Petersburg Regional VA office to hear disability appeals.
“It’s about giving them what they deserve,” Iyampillai said. “That humbled me. That made me even want to fight harder for them,” he told WUSF News.
Vietnam veteran James Clarke served four years in the Marine Corps. A cancer survivor, he’s battled for years – on his own – for his disability benefits. It wasn’t until the students and staff at Stetson stepped in, that he finally got his day in court.
“I wasn’t prepared… four of them showed up, they had to bring in extra chairs… I said to the judge ‘are you feeling a little overwhelmed?’ She was a real sweetheart about it.”
Clarke did get a final decision in his favor — almost 50 years since his service in Vietnam and a decade since his disability claim. He is still waiting for the VA to implement it and pay him.
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