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A legal clinic at the William & Mary Law School is expanding its efforts with the help of a state grant.
The Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic is slated to receive $245,000 from the commonwealth of Virginia to increase its services to veterans.
The grant will fund the addition of a full-time attorney, a full-time legal administrator and a part-time psychologist to the clinic’s staff.
“We are enormously grateful that the General Assembly has made this important investment in the Commonwealth’s wounded warriors who served our nation,” law school dean Davison M. Douglas said in a news release.
Founded in 2008, the Puller Clinic assists veterans with filing disability claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Clinic Director Patricia Roberts, who is also a professor at the law school, said veterans returning from service face an increasingly complex process to file claims with the VA.
With ongoing military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Roberts said greater numbers of veterans are applying for disability claims, in addition to aging veterans of earlier conflicts, like the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars.
Many of the claims from recent veterans involve disabilities stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. The VA requires medical evidence — including linking the suspect injury to the veteran’s military service — before approving disability claims for PTSD and TBI.
Roberts said the VA also recently formalized its application process. While the reform made the process more uniform, Roberts said it made initiating the claims process more difficult for indigent veterans, or those who did not have access to the now-required standard forms.
“A veteran used to be able to write a claim on the back of a napkin and send it to the VA to start a claim,” she said.
Roberts said that difficulty navigating the claims process was the initial inspiration for the clinic. Two law school alumni who were also veterans, reflecting on their own difficulties with the system, saw an opportunity to assist other veterans through the process.
“Even though they had been attorneys and had legal training, they still had problems working through it,” Roberts said. “They thought, if they had difficulty figuring it out, how big of a problem was it for other veterans?”
Clinic staff helps veterans navigate the VA claims process, making sure their paperwork is properly prepared, and helping them acquire the necessary medical evidence to support their claims through partnerships with medical staff at Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University.
Veterans interested in receiving assistance approach the clinic, and staff — including professional attorneys and law students — then commence a review of his or her application. Depending on the outcome of the review, Roberts said the clinic could take up veterans’ cases, or they may be recommended to partner agencies or other service providers to assist their claims.
Roberts said the clinic generally assists on claims from homeless and indigent veterans, and primarily services Virginia veterans.
The clinic’s main job in assisting veterans is to help prove three things: the person is a veteran, that person has a current disability, and the disability is connected to his or her active duty military service.
Roberts said the clinic usually represents 60 to 70 veterans at a time, but the additional staffing made possible by the state grant will allow the clinic to expand its services.
Prior to receiving the state grant, the clinic derived all of its funding from private donations, especially from the Virginia Law Foundation and the law school Class of 1984.
Expanding its services continues a pattern of growth the clinic has demonstrated since its founding in 2008.
When it was launched, Roberts said it was one of six similar legal services at law schools nationwide. In the subsequent seven years, that number has grown to more than 40, and in 2013, the White House asked the Puller Clinic to produce a “playbook” for law schools interested in starting their own veterans clinics.
Additional information on the clinic is available online at its website, or by telephone at 757-221-7443.