The efforts of the Puller Clinic students, managing attorneys, staff members, and all of the attorneys from the private bar who volunteer their time to serve veterans were recognized on April 15, 2013, when the Virginia State Bar awarded the Clinic and the pro bono attorneys affiliated with it the Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award.  Congratualations  to all of you who have worked to make the Puller Clinic a success, and more importantly, to help veterans obtain the benefits that they have earned through their sacrifice.

By: James Booth

“A second RPG pierces the windshield glass, detonating inside and spraying hot metal throughout the cockpit. The helicopter falls with a queasy rush.  In an instant, nearly fifty thousand pounds of rubber, steel, and American flesh crash to earth…. It was still 6:14 a.m., and the sun remained just below the horizon.  My life had changed in twenty seconds.”  — Nate Self, Two Wars

 

During my sophomore year at West Point, I had the opportunity to meet a man named Nate Self.  Nate was recently retired from the military and working on a project to help mentor and train young leaders at the United States Military Academy.  Over the course of the next few years, Nate returned to West Point on several occasions to mentor young cadets and inspire leadership in future officers.  One visit stands out amongst the rest.  I was taking a class entitled Battle Command, taught by retired General Frederick Franks. Nate Self was the guest speaker that day, there to tell a story about Operation Anaconda and a platoon of elite Rangers who were sent on a rescue mission to the top of Takur Ghar, a mountain in Afghanistan just miles from the Pakistan border.  This was Nate’s story, the same story he shares in his fittingly titled autobiography Two Wars.

As a Puller Clinic student, I thought it would be beneficial to share a real Soldier’s story with those advocating on behalf of veterans’ issues.  So I read Nate’s book for a second time and gave a presentation, ultimately hoping to inspire others to read it for themselves.  The first “war” described what most think of when they first hear the word; it tracks Nate’s early years, his decision to attend West Point, become an Infantry officer, and lead a platoon of soldiers in the elite Ranger Regiment.  These decisions led to one fateful fight in March 2002 during Operation Anaconda – a battle to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the Shahi-Kot Valley of Afghanistan.  After one member of a SEAL team fell out of a helicopter directly onto a heavily fortified enemy fighting position and another SEAL was killed in a failed rescue attempt, Nate’s platoon of Rangers was sent as part of a Quick Reaction Force to make a second rescue attempt.  The events that transpired during the next fifteen hours forever changed the lives of everyone involved, including Nate Self.

The second “war” is far different from the first but equally as compelling and exceedingly personal.  Nate shares his struggles with PTSD and the difficulty of returning home after a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Nate tells a difficult, honest, and intimate story that is raw at times but real and meaningful. People from all backgrounds and experiences can benefit from the context Nate offers – through personal struggles or from simply knowing someone who has experienced the realities of war.  Nate has the ability to inspire others with PTSD and offer encouragement and understanding to their friends and family seeking answers.

Reading Nate’s story reminded me of the man I met seven years ago, the leadership he demonstrated both in combat and the classroom, the heroic resilience of the men he fought alongside, and finally, his willingness to openly share the personal struggles that ensued upon returning home.  Nate Self’s story has something to offer everyone, whether a veteran living with the realities of the second war, an interested reader hoping to discover intriguing context to Operation Anaconda, an advocate for veterans’ issues, or simply a concerned citizen.

 

By:  Marien Levy

On March 27, 2013, the Clinic conducted an outreach program for veterans at the New Covenant Church in Hampton, VA. Managing Attorney Stacey-Rae Simcox, HMVHE Director John Paul Cimino, and Clinic Fellow Jon Krug were present, along with ten of the Clinic’s law and policy students. We were joined by a group of almost two dozen people, including veterans and their family members.

 

Professor Simcox introduced the Clinic’s work and four students gave a presentation explaining key aspects of veterans’ benefits law. We explained that in order to qualify for VA benefits, a veteran must have been in active service and been discharged under conditions “other than dishonorable” and must not be barred from receiving benefits for other reasons.

 

The presentation explained the three things a veteran must prove in order to get disability compensation. These are 1) a current disability, 2) an in-service event, and 3) a nexus between the disability and the event. Several veterans in the audience had questions about how to show these elements when they filed a claim, and how the VA would assess their claims if these elements were not immediately clear. We discussed the presumptions that the VA has created to help veterans show that their conditions were caused by Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, or exposure to radiation. We also explained that the VA should notify the veteran if his or her claim is missing any information that is needed to complete the application or to substantiate the claim, should get the veteran a medical examination to assess the disability, and should give claims a sympathetic reading.

 

After the presentation, members of the Clinic met with veterans who had questions about claims that they had filed and about financial hardship waivers. Many veterans had filed claims on their own or with the assistance of veterans service organizations. We heard overwhelmingly that veterans felt that they had been waiting too long to receive decisions from the VA. We were impressed to find that veterans who had been waiting a long time were contacting their Congressmen for assistance and seeking access to their VA files through FOIA requests.

 

By:  Ian Mahoney

As a master of public policy candidate in the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy (Jefferson Program) at the College of William and Mary I have been fortunate to work as a policy consultant for the Puller Clinic through the Jefferson Program’s capstone Policy Research Seminar. During my first semester with the clinic my team and I put our quantitative and analytical skills to work valuing the services that the Puller Clinic offers. I found the work my team and I did so rewarding that when the offer came up to stay on with the clinic for another semester, I readily took the opportunity.

One of the most intriguing facets of working with the Puller Clinic is the unique experience it offers. The clinic thrives on cooperation. In addition to helping a veteran with their disability claim, it partners with other academic institutions, like the Center for Psychological Services and Development at Virginia Commonwealth University or the Jefferson Program, to help veterans access the care they need. The technical term for this, or one of them at least, is co-specialization. This type of cooperation unites numerous organizations, each with their own areas of expertise, in an effort to holistically provide the assistance that none of the individual groups would be able to offer on their own. This model is efficient and effective because it adapts to the individual veteran and serves as a learning experience for students in the respective academic programs. Unfortunately, there is no dictionary provided.

Coming into the clinic I was prepared for a crash course in veteran law. I was unaware I was going to be learning a whole new language. Terms like “establishing a nexus” and “rating schedule” were casually passed around the clinic’s office making it feel like I had taken a trip much longer than the distance between the main campus of William and Mary and the law school. I slowly picked up on the jargon and began to notice when I used lingo myself. Over the last year and half in the Jefferson Program I had grown accustomed to being surrounded by people who were familiar with linear regressions and cost-benefit analyses and it took some effort to remember that not everyone I was now working with was as comfortable with those terms. There was a steep learning curve upon entering into this new environment, but it was one that was worth the effort to overcome.

This lesson in cross-cultural communication was not one I was expecting, but looking back, it is one of the most beneficial experiences I have had in my time with the clinic. Communication gaps strike me as one of the primary barriers to successful cooperation. The Puller Clinic and the Helping Military Veterans Through Higher Education (HMVHE) initiative ground themselves on their strong ability to converse with their clients and to work across organizations to provide veterans with all of the help they need. None of their accomplishments would have been possible if they did not take the time to learn how to interact their clients and partners. The most important component of cooperation is being able to listen and be heard. Moving forward multi-organization partnerships will become more numerous and it is critical to remember that though you may be speaking a different language than your partners, you all have the same goal, and that will help decrease the communication barriers over time.