Defining what is a veterans issue, in the legal sense, is complicated.
Veterans face all of the same legal battles as their civilian counterparts, with the addition of filing claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For law firms dealing with veterans, navigating their specific issues is a maze of its own.
Some law firms have attorneys who specifically handle veterans law, while others classify the issues under other categories, such as disability or Social Security.
For lawyers, representing a veteran in front of the regional VA office could be considered a relatively new practice. Before June 2007, there was a federal cap of $10 on what veterans could pay lawyers for their assistance that dated back to the American Civil War.
After legislation removed the cap, more lawyers have taken on VA denial claims. If veterans believe they should be awarded benefits from the VA, they can file with the regional office. For Iowa vets, that office is in Des Moines.
The VA issues a decision, and if it denies benefits, vets can appeal by filing a notice of disagreement, and at this point, they can hire lawyers.
The government requires special accreditation from the VA for lawyers wishing to practice veterans law and interact with the VA system. Jeannette Keller, a lawyer at Bowman and DePree in Davenport, and Amy Kretkowsi of Hoefer Law Firm in Iowa City have administered the training.
“Attorneys are the new kid on the block,” Kretkowski said.
The training teaches lawyers how to best represent clients, from answering logistical questions to offering advice on what questions to ask and where to look for old military friends who could attest to their clients' injuries.
Jim Kringlen, managing attorney at Iowa Legal Aid in Cedar Rapids, assists vets filing VA claims as well as working to address veteran homelessness.
According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, veterans account for more than 12 percent of all homeless adults. During a January night last year, there were 57,849 homeless vets across the country.
Iowa Legal Aid, a non-profit organization that works with low-income Iowans, has partnered with the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP, to provide legal assistance to homeless veterans or those who are at-risk.
These veterans often are facing eviction from their landlords, for things like late payments or breach of leases. The agencies help vets stay in their homes by helping them get more time to make a payment or proving there were no lease violations.
The partnership is funded through a $700,000 grant obtained by HACAP that will run out later this year.
“You're dealing with a clientele — some with physical issues and some with mental problems. Being able to work with people in a compassionate and professional way — that's pretty huge,” Kretkowski said.
Dealing with the Va
But addressing the VA is a whole different issue, and lawyers looking to run a business while concentrating on helping vets receive benefits should be prepared to wait.
These lawyers deal with two main agencies: the Social Security Administration and the VA. Filing claims with the VA is a large portion of veterans law, as lawyers must navigate the claims procedure and help clients appeal to higher courts when benefits are denied.
Kretkowski said she has seen an increase in veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking benefits from their time in the service, but she serves mostly Vietnam-era vets who are seeing health problems as a result of Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during their service.
Through the VA, vets can receive two separate types of benefits. The first, compensation, is received monthly for injuries the veteran received while serving in the military.
The second option is a pension. With pension, the vet must be 100 percent disabled, although the disability does not have to be related to his or her time in the service.
Compensation claims, on average, take more time to process, Keller said. It takes longer to locate medical records and have someone do an exam to justify the claim.
Keller has worked on a single claim for 10 years, locating witnesses and meeting with doctors. After appealing to a regional office, the client continued to appeal to higher courts, but it took even more time to locate service members who witnessed the veteran's injury.
The process is complicated, as Keller said most veterans don't realize the military and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs are separate entities, meaning the VA won't have their injuries or service documentation on hand.
All of the lawyers agreed — VA benefit claims take time to process, and the craft takes time to learn. Todd Schmidt, a lawyer with Iowa Legal Aid in Dubuque, said claims are never really over.
USA Today reports the number of backlogged compensation requests increased to more than 850,000 last year after processing almost 1.2 million claims last year.
And with veterans from the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan filing additional claims, lawyers can anticipate wait times to last through the immediate future.
But the time is necessary, Kretkowski said.
“I think there's a huge need for this,” she said. “It takes a while to build this practice.”
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