By Kate Brolan
“On an average day, eighteen veterans of our nation’s armed forces take their own lives. Of this, roughly one-quarter are enrolled with the Department of Veterans Affairs (‘VA’) healthcare system. Among all veterans enrolled in the VA system, an additional 1,000 attempt suicide each month. Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’) are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals and are given no opportunity to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care. For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough. Like the cavalry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ these veterans may neither ‘make reply’ nor ‘reason why’ to the ‘blunder’ [of ] those responsible for their safety.”
This disturbing statement is drawn directly from the opinion of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth v. Eric K. Shinseki, __F.3d__ (9th Cir. 2011) In this landmark ruling, the Ninth Circuit unapologetically lambasted the VA for its continued failure to deliver timely mental health care and disability compensation benefits to veterans. The promise to care for veterans is encompassed in statutorily defined and constitutionally protected services and benefits. The court ruled that the inexcusable delays constitute a deprivation of property and an unjustified violation of a veteran’s right to due process.
The majority opinion ordered the lower court to oversee a complete overhaul of the VA health care benefits system and admonished Congress and the Executive Branch for having failed to respond appropriately. Veterans and their families struggle to cope with health conditions and problems without assistance as thousands of disability claims languish in the VA bureaucracy and a clogged court. The backlog of appeals keeping veterans from benefits is staggering. With unplanned-for physical and psychological wounds, veterans wait six months on average to receive disability benefits and as long as four years for appeals to be heard after benefits have been denied. Service providers at the local vet center in Downtown Ventura told me that the tremendous log jam includes veterans as far back as World War II. The Army Times reports that pending claims for compensation stand at approximately 756,000 and growing. [“Zoroya, Critics Rip VA for Increased Claims Backlog,” April 6, 2011 (www.armytimes.com/news/)] In a response to the unprecedented need for veteran advocates, the California State Bar collaborated with Practising Law Institute and Swords to Plowshares (a nonprofit organization assisting veterans since 1974), to offer no-cost MCLE training for lawyers to assist veterans appealing for benefits. The free training remains available on the PLI website at http://www.pli.edu.
Although you do not have to be an attorney to become a veterans advocate, you must become accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs. As an attorney veterans advocate you are required to complete three hours of qualifying CLE and file an application for accreditation with the Department of Veterans Affairs (available at http://www.va.gov/OGC/docs/Accred/VA21a.pdf). Applications are processed in approximately six weeks. Of course, there are thousands of cases up on appeal, but only one case a year could make a difference to one veteran and their family.
What can you do to get these selfless men and women back on their feet?
If you are interested in helping a veteran with an appeal for benefits as a pro bono service, or you would like to offer a veteran other types of pro bono legal services you can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also participate in the Ventura Stand Down the weekend of July 29, 30 and 31, with longtime volunteers and veterans Roger Myers and Glenn Campbell. Contact at email@example.com or (805)644-7188.
And next time you meet a veteran, welcome them home, thank them for their service and ask, “Now, how can I help?”.
Kate Brolan is solo practitioner in the areas of small business, contracts, art law and “of counsel” services.