UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Several years before Justin Bish helped to found the Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, he watched his Army National Guard unit return from Afghanistan and struggle to access veterans’ benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’ve always wanted to help veterans and had noticed all the problems people experience when trying to navigate the complex VA system of benefits,” Bish said, now a Penn State Law graduate and attorney at McQuaide Blasko in State College. “As time went on, and my soldiers came back, I saw firsthand the struggles they were having.”
He knew he had to do something — and he knew Penn State, his undergraduate alma mater, was the place where he could do it.
As a student at Penn State Law, Bish found a community ready to stand behind him in his quest to serve those who served their country. There, he met clinic co-founder and Penn State Law graduate Rebecca Buckley-Stein, who had family in the military and now is an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. Together with experiential learning director Michael Foreman and several additional faculty members, Bish and Buckley-Stein developed a proposal for the Veterans and Servicemembers Clinic, which was put into action in spring 2015.
“When I helped to prepare the clinic proposal, I started doing research and became aware of the huge need for legal assistance that exists,” said Clinical Professor Michele Vollmer, who helped write the proposal. “We were in a position to simplify the complex laws for the clients and help them to build a successful appeal, and seeing that need made me want to help, so I volunteered to supervise students in the clinic.”
As the clinic grew, Vollmer was appointed director, and other attorneys began to volunteer their time to the clinic, including Penn State Law Professor Jeff Erickson and local attorney and Army veteran Leah Davis.
Now the Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic is its fourth semester of operation, and the students, director and supervising attorneys have all helped to win disability, education and pension benefit appeals for veterans in the Penn State and Centre County communities — and they don’t have any plans to slow down.
One of the first cases the clinic took on was that of former Penn State professor of counseling psychology Bob Slaney, who commanded a Pathfinder detachment in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. After his time in the military, and after a successful career in academia, he developed acute myeloid leukemia just after he retired from Penn State. When the VA denied his request for disability benefits, he turned to the clinic for help.
It was a long and hard-fought process, but Bish and other clinic students reviewed and summarized medical records, performed legal and medical research, and obtained expert opinions from the treating oncologist and two of the leading U.S. experts in the field of hematology and oncology. The students also wrote a legal argument in fall 2015 to explain why the medical and legal research and expert opinions supported an award of service-connection for the veteran.
And all their hard work paid off. In mid-October, Bob was notified that the VA appeals court had granted his claim for benefits for a service-related disability. There’s still more work to be done to ensure the veteran receives the level of benefits his illness warrants, but the clinic is more than up to the task.
“To help a client to win disability benefits he never thought he’d win without the help of experts, and to know that it probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, is incredibly rewarding,” Bish said. “This is, in a way, about having the sacrifices and experiences of these veterans recognized by their country; it’s a way of thanking them for all they’ve done.”
The clinic, thanks to the hard work of Bish and other dedicated Penn State Law students like Jeff Padgett, Kevin Schrop, Ryan Dickinson and Misti Howey, have also won education and pension appeals for other veterans with ties to Penn State and the local community.
Some of their victories include helping both Jordan Leonard, a Penn State Law 1L and Marine veteran and reservist, and William VanSaun, a Penn State graduate, son of a Penn State professor, and Army veteran, to obtain education benefits to attend law school. As a result of Howey’s advocacy, the VA reopened Leonard's claim and Leonard's benefits were granted shortly after the fall semester began.
Bish and Van Saun attended Penn State together and both participated in Penn State’s Army ROTC program. With support from McQuaide Blasko, Bish worked on Van Saun’s appeal pro bono with the clinic students and wrote a persuasive brief to support Van Saun’s appeal. Van Saun sent the brief to his former Army supervisors, who were impressed with the arguments. Van Saun’s education benefits were granted by the VA soon after the clinic’s brief was received.
The clinic’s work inspired Leah Davis to volunteer her time to help the clinic. She began in March 2016 after a 25-year career as a judicial clerk for the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Davis has researched a number of legal issues for the clinic and has helped the clinic to expand its services by supervising students on two recent pension appeals.
In both pension appeals, Davis and the clinic students helped veterans to obtain non-service-connected pension benefits to offset the cost of assisted living by convincing the administrative law judges that the veterans’ assets were not a bar to recovery. The clinic students worked closely with Centre County veteran service officer Brian Querry, who filed the original claims for the veterans and referred the appeals to the clinic for assistance.
The first client was Navy veteran and Penn State employee Lisa B. Squire. She sought help for her parents, George and Mary Beckman, who both served in the Navy during the Korean conflict.
The second client was a Centre County resident, Kathy Marusa. The clinic’s work ensured that her father, William J. Salisbury, who served in the Navy during World War II, received the monthly pension benefits he deserved. Salisbury’s funds from selling his home were almost depleted during the appeal before his benefits were granted. The clinic students used Salisbury’s high assisted living expense-to-income ratio and his advanced age to expedite his appeal and eventually won the appeal. The win on appeal helped Salisbury to keep his dignity and enabled him to stay in an assisted living facility, instead of being transferred to a nursing home.
“Countless hours went into the research and submission of a formal legal appeal in an effort to secure the benefits my father earned during his service to our country,” said Marusa. “This would not have happened without the unceasing dedication and hard work of the mentoring professor and students at Penn State Law.”
Looking to the future
Not only does the clinic benefit the veterans who use its services, but the clinic also serves as an invaluable resource for Penn State Law students to hone their litigation and appellate skills. Litigation skills are needed to put a VA appeal together because VA administrative law judges are permitted to review new evidence during an appeal.
“Not only are we helping our veterans, we’re also training students in an area of law where we don’t have enough lawyers,” Bish said. “This is a vital area of law that many students aren’t exposed to, so this clinic is preparing young and future lawyers for this kind of work for years to come. We hope to train and inspire many students to perform this work on a pro bono basis for veterans in the future.”
Jeff Erickson, a Penn State Law professor and supervising attorney for the veterans’ clinic, said the future of the clinic is bright — and busy.
In addition to continuing to help area veterans navigate their disability, education and pension appeals, Erickson said the clinic will also pursue policy issues at the state and federal level. In the near future, the Clinic will form partnerships to conduct biomedical research with the goal of instigating legislative and VA consideration of expanding the list of diseases presumptively related to Agent Orange exposure.
“We don’t only want to help our veterans in their particular cases,” Erickson said. “We want to help shape law and policy to improve the lives of all our veterans across the nation.”