Stories about veterans waiting years - decades even - to resolve a disability claim are not uncommon.
“I have a claim from 2003 that’s still not found yet. Nobody knows where it’s at,” said Gustavo Nunez, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. “I actually gave up on it a long time ago. I was so frustrated with the system.”
It wasn’t until the birth of his 2-year-old daughter that Nunez decided to try again for his disability benefits. Worried about their future, Nunez wants to make sure he’ll have the VA to care for his health problems related to his service because he won’t be able to afford the medical bills.
It’s no surprise that many think the Department of Veterans Affairs automatically takes care of disabled veterans when they leave the military.
“A lot of people and sometimes veterans too think: ‘Well, the government is going to take care of it.’ And it’s not that they don’t have good people there trying, it’s just that they’re overwhelmed,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, director of the Stetson College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
The Stetson clinic has become somewhat of a refuge of last resort for veterans who have had trouble with their VA claim.
Simcox said people are usually shocked when they learn that a veteran is prohibited – thanks to a law dating back to the Civil War - from paying an attorney to help file their disability benefits claim or appeal an initial VA denial.
“There were a lot congressional hearings after the Civil War that some attorneys weren’t ethical, right, and scamming veterans,” Simcox said. “Since then, there have been a lot of strict policies about when attorneys are allowed to help veterans in the process for pay.”
A lot of veterans with routine claims 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. That’s where the Veterans Advocacy Clinic and Stetson law students step in.
“You have these students who are really hungry for experience. They really want to learn how to be a lawyer,” Simcox said. “Everybody wins and then the VA wins.”
Patrick Iyampillai is a third-year Stetson law student who has worked on veterans cases, poring over thousands of documents, older than his 24 years.
“I was born in 1991 and I had a case in the 1980's when someone was in the Reserves. And I had two cases from the Vietnam era,” Iyampillai said.
Iyampillia got to use his mock trial skills when he presented cases last fall 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.”
One of veterans the clinic has fought for is Vietnam veteran James Clarke, who was in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1971. Clarke fought for his disability benefits on his own for years.
Clarke’s clear blue eyes clouded with tears when he described having his medical claims heard with Stetson law students and attorneys by his side.
“I wasn’t prepared,” Clarke said. “Four of them showed up. They had to bring in extra chairs and I said to the judge, ‘Are you feeling a little overwhelmed?’ And she said no. She was a real sweetheart about it.”
A cancer survivor with serious health problems, Clarke felt vindicated after his day in court.
“They admitted that I was in Vietnam. They admitted that I was in the Marine Corps. They admitted the Agent Orange,” Clarke said. “But they’re still doing nothing. You know, we used to have an expression in the Marine Corps. ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ And what they’ve done is made it so damn complicated.”
It's almost 50 years since Clarke's service in Vietnam, a decade since his disability claim. He did get a final decision in his favor, but Clarke is still waiting for the VA to implement it and pay him.
Simcox said Stetson’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic is working to create a model for all law schools to use adding that in Florida, Barry University has expressed interest in starting a clinic, NOVA has one, and Florida Coastal in Jacksonville just started a clinic.