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National Veterans Legal Services Program Newsletter 
Justice for Warriors
Spring 2013
Dear Friend, 


Here at the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), we've had a busy winter working to ensure that our nation's 25 million veterans and active duty personnel receive the benefits they deserve. We are pleased to share a number of stories from veterans and their families that were awarded life-changing benefits in the past few months, thanks to the steadfast efforts of our dedicated attorneys. 

This latest issue of our newsletter features:
  • an update on the agent orange class action lawsuit
  • some examples of our recent victories  
  • our Joint Executive Director Bart Stichman testifying before Congress
  • our recent training sessions  
  • a highlight of one of our dedicated attorneys
  • a Lawyers Serving Warriors® volunteer attorney pro bono award winner 
  • the launch of NVLSP's new website
  • upcoming events  
Agent Orange Class Action Update

NVLSP's five dedicated attorneys and one paralegal continue to work on behalf of the class members of the Agent Orange class action suit (Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), achieving great success in the past year. Our goal is to continue to monitor VA compliance with the court's class action order, in hopes that all veterans and their survivors receive the benefits our government owes them.  


In total we have mailed over 73,000 letters to class members and their families, and of these, about 10,000 have contacted us for assistance. We are now sending letters to surviving spouses of class members who may have been undercompensated by the VA. Our efforts help ensure that the VA properly applies the court's orders, and each member is assigned the correct effective date, and receives the proper amount of retroactive benefits.


Since last winter, NVLSP has identified about 400 more errors in the VA's Nehmer decisions, resulting in an additional $11 million dollars in compensation being awarded to deserving veterans in the past year. In total, NVLSP has identified over 800 errors, forcing the VA to pay a sum of over $16 million dollars that most class members waited years to receive. 


NVLSP secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits in three cases overlooked by the VA


In addition to the class members identified by the VA, NVLSP has been contacted by a number of Vietnam veterans and their surviving family members whose VA claims should have been reviewed under the favorable Nehmer rules, but were overlooked by the VA. Currently, to be considered a class member, you must satisfy the following requirements: 1) the veteran must have served in the Republic of Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975; 2) the veteran must have been diagnosed or passed away from either ischemic heart disease (IHD), Parkinson's disease, and/or chronic B-cell leukemia; and 3) the veteran or their surviving family members must have filed a claim for VA disability or death benefits prior to August 31, 2010 for any of those three conditions. Due to the self-reporting efforts of Vietnam veterans and veterans service organizations such as The American Legion, The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the Vietnam Veterans of America, these claims were brought to the attention of the staff attorneys in NVLSP's Nehmer Lawsuit Division. Who knows what the status of their claims would be had they never contacted NVLSP, but thanks to the steadfast efforts of our attorneys, the VA paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements owed to these veterans and survivors.


Recent Victories
  • The widow of a Vietnam veteran contacted NVLSP for help with her claim for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). When she initially contacted NVLSP, she believed that she filed her DIC claim soon after the veteran died in 1983 from ischemic heart disease - a disability recently associated with Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. If she filed in 1983 and if the claim had been decided before September 25, 1985, it would not have been considered viable under the Nehmer lawsuit as only Agent Orange claims pending on or after that date are covered under the Court's orders. In other words, she would have been ineligible for retroactive benefits. Nevertheless, our attorneys looked into her case and found that she misremembered her filing date, and actually filed in September of 1985! NVLSP's detective work provided her with a new effective date back to the date of her claim and a retroactive payment of almost $250,000!
  • NVLSP worked for six years on a claim for a widow of a Vietnam veteran who died of an Agent Orange-related illness, starting with the Nehmer lawsuit and progressing from the regional office to the BVA to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and back to the regional office. Finally, after six years of work, NVLSP convinced the VA of the veteran's proper diagnosis and disability rating during his lifetime, resulting in over $160,000 in accrued benefits paid to the widow. The widow is now using her newly-received DEA benefits to return to school.
  • A veteran who suffered from nasopharyngeal cancer due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam received over $100,000 in retroactive benefits after he was granted service connection. 

NVLSP's work brings overdue Christmas gift to a disabled veteran.

  • On Christmas morning 2012, a veteran had less than a dollar left in his bank account. By that evening, he had deposited into his account over $50,000 in retroactive benefits, due a settlement obtained by NVLSP which reversed a previous decision that had reduced his disability rating. The veteran was able to go out and buy last-minute Christmas gifts for his grandchildren.
On the Hill

Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Taps NVLSP Joint Executive Director Bart Stichman to Testify on the Issue of the VA Claims Process

The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs requested the expert opinion of NVLSP on the subject of the VA claims process, and its efforts to transform the department in order to improve the timeliness and accuracy of claims decisions. Joint Executive Director Bart Stichman commented on the VA's performance to date, as well as where he thinks the department needs to improve.

Mr. Stichman testified that the current leadership of the VA, Secretary Shinseki, has implemented policies which are an improvement from past administrations. In particular, Secretary Shinseki added three new diseases - ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and chronic B-cell leukemia - to the Agent Orange category of association in 2010, even as the department faced an increase in claims and an unprecedented and growing VA claims backlog. The review of these new claims was implemented promptly, due to new administrative procedures put in place by the Secretary. 

There were still errors present in many of these claims, which NVLSP worked to correct, but the rate of errors was lower than NVLSP has found under previous administrations. In fact, under prior leadership, the VA's performance was so bad that U.S. District Court had to issue an order requiring VA to show cause why it should not be held in contempt, for failing to comply with the terms of the Nehmer consent decree.


While NVLSP commended the VA for its handling of Nehmer claims, Stichman noted that although the VA has made significant improvements in its handling of Nehmer class member claims, there are still major problems that need to be corrected. He believes that the VA places too much weight on the average number of days the VA uses to decide an initial claim, rather than the number of days VA takes to decide a claim correctly. In many cases, VA regional office adjudicators prematurely decide claims, without taking the time to gather the proper amount of evidence. This in turn creates more appeals, and increases the VA claims backlog, or may lead to a veteran giving up on a potentially valid claim.


Another major issue involves cases that are appealed. NVLSP and others have observed that after a veteran files an appeal with an initial decision, there is an unfortunate tendency of many VA adjudicators to over-develop the claim. That is, these adjudicators delay decisions where the evidence supports a grant of the claim, in order to obtain additional evidence - typically in the form of another VA medical examination - in the apparent hope that evidence will be developed to support a denial of the claim. This longstanding phenomenon is contrary to the pro-claimant process embodied in statutes and regulations and is a major contributor to the large VA backlog.

Click here to read his full testimony.

NVLSP's Recent Training Sessions

From the very beginning, one of NVLSP's primary goals has been to train advocates in veterans law so that they can efficiently help veterans secure benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The goal of these trainings is to teach advocates how to obtain the correct amount of VA benefits for deserving veterans and their family members. On a continuing basis, NVLSP trains service officers from major service organizations. This year, NVLSP conducted training sessions for The American Legion, The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and elder law attorneys in Florida. Over a period of several days, NVLSP trained hundreds of volunteers at The Military Order of the Purple Heart. In addition, NVLSP has participated in quality reviews at regional offices in Indianapolis, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.


NVLSP_Amy Odom
Amy F. Odom, Staff Attorney  


Amy F. Odom is a litigation staff attorney with NVLSP. She represents veterans and survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Board of Veterans' Appeals, and VA Regional Offices. She is a graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law (J.D., cum laude, 2006), where she competed on the school's moot court team and served as a Public Interest Fellow with the Center for Government Responsibility. Ms. Odom also earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida.


Ms. Odom came to NVLSP after expressing an interest in veterans' affairs during a clerkship in the Department of Labor Office of Administrative Law Judges, and an ALJ put her in touch with contacts in the field. Ms. Odom's interest in veterans' issues stems from the difficulties our service members encountered in Iraq during her law school years of 2003-2006. "I wanted to do my part to help ensure that my generation was taken care of when they came home."


Ms. Odom describes a unique case of how, on behalf of NVLSP, she helped an appellant receive much deserved benefits. A veteran was exposed to Agent Orange while aboard a ship off the coast of Vietnam. However, since he never physically stepped onto the Vietnamese mainland, he was not automatically presumed to be exposed to the chemical. The Department of Veterans Affairs should have confirmed with the Navy if the ship had traveled through the small inland waterways, which would have resulted in a presumption that he was exposed to Agent Orange; however, the agency never followed through. Ms. Odom filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, arguing that the VA legally erred by failing to confirm whether the ship entered Vietnam's inland waterways. Through the ship's reunion website, Amy was able to track down the ship's captain during that time, who stated that the boat did indeed go through inland waterways and prepared a written statement to that effect. After securing a remand of the claim from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Ms. Odom provided the appellant with the captain's written statement, and the Board of Veterans' Appeals granted the claim with thousands of dollars in retroactive pay. Also, the VA added the ship to the "Agent Orange Ship List" which is a list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships operating in Vietnam that were likely exposed to Agent Orange. This status automatically grants veterans who served on these ships with the presumption of being exposed to the pesticide, which makes it much easier for them or their survivors to win additional benefits from the VA.


In addition to representing individual veterans before the CAVC, BVA, and VA regional offices, Ms. Odom also mentors and advises pro bono attorneys through NVLSP's Lawyers Serving Warriors® program, and attorneys representing appellants through the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program. She finds the program rewarding, especially when pro bono attorneys are successful in securing benefits for undercompensated veterans. Some recent victories include volunteer attorney Brian J Larivee at WilmerHale achieving a reversal on a PTSD case, granting the appellant $42,000 in retroactive benefits, and volunteer attorney Joelle Laszlo at Reed Smith succeeding in getting a 100% disability rating awarded to a combat veteran who served in Iraq.


Amy notes that while NVLSP's recent success stories are encouraging, there are still challenges ahead. The backlog of cases at the Department of Veterans Affairs results in many deserving vets waiting months or more for the payments they deserve. Also, she worries that the wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan may create a reduction in the visibility of veterans' issues and a public loss of urgency to help. Amy predicts compensation for undiagnosed illnesses linked to service in Southwest Asia and traumatic brain injury will be important issues in the veteran community in the next few years.


Ms. Odom is recently married and resides in Fairfax, Virginia with her husband David, who is a veteran of the United States Navy.


Pro Bono Award Winner Donates to NVLSP
NVLSP received a $500 donation thanks to Jeanette Wingler, an attorney in the Washington D.C. office of Dechert LLP. Ms. Wingler received the Samuel E. Klein Pro Bono Award from Dechert honoring her pro bono work with NVLSP's Lawyers Serving Warriors® program. As part of the award, Ms. Wingler was given $500 to donate to the organization of her choice. We thank Jeanette for her donation, and for partnering with NVLSP in the Lawyers Serving Warriors® program. NVLSP commends her on the honorable work she has done on behalf of veterans.
Our New Website has Launched!


In January, NVLSP launched a new website to help veterans, service members, survivors and military families better access its pro-bono services. Two NVLSP projects to help combat veterans are featured on the new website's home page.

Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR) Project: Attorneys stand ready to assist veterans who were medically separated from the military between 9/11/2001 and 12/31/2009 with a combined disability rating of 0%, 10%, or 20% in applying to the PDBR for a ratings review and possible upgrade to military retirement benefits. Approximately 77,000 veterans are eligible to apply to the PDBR, a review board set up by Congress to help veterans who may have been wrongfully lowballed on disability claims. NVLSP and its pro-bono advocates stand ready to help veterans apply to the board and present their best possible case for an upgrade.


Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) Project: Attorneys are also ready to help veterans apply for CRSC. CRSC is a federal benefit available to veterans who are medically retired for disability (either because they are on permanent disability retirement or the Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL). CRSC can provide a veteran with hundreds of dollars per month in additional tax-free compensation in addition to whatever compensation the veteran is receiving from the VA or the military. NVLSP estimates that more than 100,000 veterans from all war eras may qualify for CRSC compensation. Unlike some military benefits, CRSC is not paid automatically. A veteran must submit a detailed application and supporting documents. NVLSP and its partner attorneys are ready to help veterans apply.


Service members will also appreciate the opportunity to download for free the American Veterans and Service members Survival Guide, a 605-page treatise loaded with information to help service members, veterans and their families. The guide offers information on navigating the VA, filing for service-connected disability compensation, understanding the VA claims and appeals process, accessing VA educational assistance and vocational rehabilitation, understanding VA programs for family members and survivors, knowing re-employment rights for those in military service, gives advice for veterans in the criminal justice system and their attorneys, gives information about upgrading less-than-fully-honorable discharges and correcting military records, offers tips for coping with disability separation and medical retirement, shares information about voting rights issues and common family law issues service members encounter, and many more topics.


Attorneys and advocates can also learn about NVLSP's training program.  For the past 26 years, one of NVLSP's primary goals has been to train advocates in veterans' law so that they can efficiently help veterans secure benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The goal of these trainings is to teach advocates how to obtain the correct amount of VA benefits for deserving veterans (and their family members).

Attorneys and advocates who rely on NVLSP to publish the latest information on veterans' disability benefits will also find the new online store and publications area much easier to navigate. They can read about NVLSP publications and resources, and purchase the well-known Veteran's Benefits Manual, the nation's definitive guide on veteran disability benefits, as well as NVLSP's basic training course and The Veteran's Advocate newsletter.



Upcoming Events
Truth and Justice: The 2013 Summit on Military Sexual Violence
April 17-18th, 2013
Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill
400 New Jersey Avenue, NW,
Washington, D.C., 20001

Don't miss one of our staff attorneys, Katy Clemens, speaking at this event!  


2013 Judicial Conference

April 18-19, 2013 Registration now open!
Grand Hyatt Washington at Metro Center
1000 H Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Conference Website

A number of NVLSP attorneys are involved with the 2013 CAVC Bar Association Judicial Conference. Staff Attorney Christine Cote-Hill is serving as an organizer, Senior Staff Attorney Louis George is moderating a panel, and Staff Attorney Amy Odom is featured on a panel. 

The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) is an independent nonprofit organization that has worked since 1980 to ensure that the U.S. government keeps its pact with our nation's 25 million veterans and active duty personnel by providing them the federal benefits they have earned through their service to our country.

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