Standing in near-frozen water while guarding a bridge during the notorious Battle of the Bulge in 1945, the infantryman sustained such severe frostbite he almost lost a foot. Evacuated to a hospital in England, he avoided amputation but had serious problems with his feet the rest of his life. When he died in 2008 from a variety of health problems, his widow — who had very little income — applied for a type of benefit for survivors of veterans whose death had resulted, at least in part, from a service-related disability. But a doctor with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) said losing the use of his feet had nothing to do with her husband’s death.
It took nearly six years and a trip to federal court, but with the help of the Harvard Law School (HLS) Veterans Legal Clinic the widow finally prevailed, winning a monthly payment from the VA that completely changes her financial health. While two other VA doctors concurred with the first opinion, the clinic retained two experts of its own who reached the opposite conclusion. Under the guidance of Clinical Professor of Law Daniel Nagin, who founded the clinic in 2012, Christopher Patalano ’14 wrote a winning brief that persuaded the Board of Veterans Appeals that the VA was wrong. Chris Melendez ’15, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, also worked on the case as a summer intern at the clinic.
“I hardly had [any] income. Now I know I have something I can stand on. I’ve got more to live for,” the elderly client said as she thanked the students and Nagin for her victory.
“After knowing that she had fought so hard and so long for these benefits,” said Patalano, “it was an extremely happy day when we received the final decision from the VA.”
In just two years, more than 30 HLS students have enrolled in the Veterans Legal Clinic — housed at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) in Jamaica Plain, with Nagin as its faculty director — and represented more than 100 clients in areas of federal and state veterans’ benefits, discharge upgrades, and estate-planning matters. They have landed numerous victories before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) and in veteran-related federal and state agencies, and assisted many more vets in companion programs at the Legal Services Center in such areas as combating predatory student lending, foreclosure defense, family law, and tax law.
Among other victories, they obtained service-connected disability benefits for an Afghanistan war veteran diagnosed with cancer; won a female veteran’s appeal to the CAVC of the VA’s decision to deny her PTSD benefits for military sexual trauma; and successfully represented a veteran in an appeal of a state agency’s decision to deny benefits based on the character of his military discharge. The clinic also offers veterans estate planning under the guidance of Clinical Instructor Tamara Kolz Griffin, an excellent opportunity for students looking to develop their skills outside the courtroom.
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