Thursday, November 4, 2021
The United States government owes a debt to its veterans for their service to the country, said Bart Stichman, special counsel to the not-for-profit National Veterans Legal Services Program.
"Unfortunately, the government has not kept that promise since the Vietnam War," Stichman said.
He was the keynote speaker for Friday's symposium on veterans' issues presented by the University of Missouri School of Law Veterans Clinic: "Pushing the Envelope: Firsts in Advocacy for America's Heroes."
"The government made the decision not to pay the cost of war" after Vietnam, Stichman said.
His organization was able to get upgrades to discharges for more than 7,000 Vietnam veterans who received "less than honorable" discharges.
Those with less than honorable discharges aren't eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits, and have a stigma attached to them that hurts job prospects.
The government lowered its requirements for military service to get more bodies to Vietnam and were surprised when not all performed well, he said.
"No other employer grades your performance when you leave and says you're undesirable," Stichman said.
Veterans were helped by the repeal of two laws, he said. One was a law that barred them from appealing VA denials to federal courts, resulting in 1988 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
The NVLSP has filed more than 5,000 appeals in the court, he said.
The other law repealed was an 1862 law that made it a federal crime for lawyers to charge more than $10 to represent a veteran in a claim.
"Probably our greatest victory has been the 1989 Nehmer case," Stichman said.
It dealt with veterans who had negative health effects from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used heavily in Vietnam.
Legislation addresses presumption that Thailand vets weren’t exposed to herbicides
Vietnam War-era veterans who served in Thailand say they’re still fighting.
Veterans who served in Thailand have long contended they face a higher bar in winning Veterans Administration (VA) disability benefits claims, having to clearly demonstrate they were exposed to Agent Orange or other harmful herbicides while their fellow veterans enjoy a presumption that they were exposed.
Several bills in Congress purport to take aim at the problem. Among them: The Veterans Agent Orange Exposure Equity Act, the Cost of War Act, and others, including the Fairly Assessing Service-related Exposure Residual (FASTER) Presumptions Act, also dubbed the “FASTER” Act.
The agency has started paying out the pledged benefits to veterans exposed to chemical agents during the Gulf War in addition to compensation for those who served in Vietnam.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun processing new compensation to veterans who suffered toxic exposure during the Gulf War.
Following a statement in May 2021 that the agency would begin new payouts to veterans who bear health consequences as a result of napalm and other chemical agents while serving in southeast Asia, VA declared additional planned compensation for Gulf War veterans.
In the wake of the May 2021 statement, Secretary Denis McDonough outlined that “[The Veterans Benefits Administration] estimates approximately 52,000 veterans and 6,000 survivors will be receiving benefit payments in the first year alone.”