Legal minefield

Legal minefield

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College of Law clinic helps vets understand, receive benefits they're due
Doug SnodgrassDoug Snodgrass, with the help of an UI College of Law alumnus and an Iowa law student, is trying to get a Purple Heart. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Army Staff Sgt. Doug Snodgrass spent six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he saw and heard more than his share of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.

“I’ve been blown up 12 times or 14 times, I can’t remember,” he says. “I’ve been blown up quite a bit.”

As a result, the 17-year Army veteran from Center Point now suffers from memory loss, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a brain injury. He can’t walk a straight line, needs a cane to move around, and suffers from crippling joint injuries. His symptoms are so severe that the VA has determined he can’t work and is on permanent disability after retiring from the Army last year.

Snodgrass believes the symptoms are a direct result of his military service—three of the explosions knocked him unconscious—and make him eligible for a Purple Heart for injuries received in battle. But so far a medal hasn't been forthcoming, so now University of Iowa law student Jake Halverson and 2008 College of Law alumna Amy Kretkowski are working to help him receive the honor he believes he's due.

Kretkowski, an attorney with the Hoefer Law Firm in Iowa City, is one of only a handful of attorneys in the region whose practice focuses on veterans law and the legal issues vets face in their relationship with the VA and the Department of Defense. She’s been assisted since January by Halverson, a Lansing native who just completed his second year at the UI law school and is a veteran himself.

Halverson works on about 15 cases at any time, mostly involving issues like upgrading discharges, requesting debt waivers for indigent veterans, obtaining official military records, determining eligibility for different types of VA benefits, or reviewing VA law to determine the evidence a veteran needs to win a claim for disability benefits.

“A lot of veterans lack a basic understanding of the benefits available to them, and as a veteran myself, I wanted to do something to help others,” says Halverson. He became interested in veterans law when he worked as a paralegal while in the Army, and found the volunteer opportunity with Kretkowski a good introduction to the field.

“Veterans law is not on our law school curriculum, so this is what I was looking for,” he says.

Kretkowski says the need for veterans lawyers is likely to grow in the future, in part because of the huge number of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also because of veterans’ growing awareness of their entitlement to judicial review of VA decisions. Before the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was created in 1988, veterans whose cases were rejected by the VA had nowhere to go for legal recourse.

When that court opened, it also opened up a whole new body of law for development, says Kretkowski, who clerked for a judge on the court for over two years before returning to Iowa City. Her practice has about 75 clients and is growing, most of them from the Vietnam era with more and more from the wars of the past decade. She also has several clients from the Korean War and two from World War II.

Halverson also assists Kretkowski with a veterans law clinic at Shelter House, an Iowa City homeless shelter, where volunteers work with area homeless veterans who need help navigating the VA’s legal maze. They attend a monthly veterans’ get-together where they provide updates on recent changes in VA law and policy, new VA programs, and meet individually with veterans who need legal assistance.

At a recent clinic, one veteran asked if injuries he sustained during the Gulf War would make him eligible for VA health benefits even though he didn’t serve the full 24 months required to receive them. Another, a former Army paratrooper, wondered if the VA can ever reduce his disability compensation benefits for the PTSD he suffers because of his service in Vietnam.

Kretkowski and Halverson agree that his own status as a veteran—he still sports his Army haircut—makes it easier for both of them to help their clients.

“They’re more apt to open up to me and share their experience, knowing that I can relate to them, and I can appreciate their sacrifice,” says Halverson.

In the case of Snodgrass, Halverson is basing his argument for a Purple Heart on recent clarifications by the Army that soldiers who suffer brain injuries are eligible for the award. In the past, he says, commanders in the field were skeptical of nominating soldiers who suffered head trauma (including concussions) if there was no external evidence of injury.

Halverson says the Department of Defense is reviewing past cases to make sure soldiers who suffered brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan but didn’t receive a Purple Heart are recognized properly.

To be reconsidered for eligibility, Halverson must gather and submit a great deal of paperwork demonstrating that Snodgrass was in the theater during a period of combat, as well as medical records and corroborating statements from unit members who were present when he was injured by the explosions.

“We need to gather the proper documentation and help him track down members of his unit and gather all of this information and submit it to the VA for their consideration,” Halverson says.

Contacts

Tom Snee, University News Service, office: 319-384-0010; cell: 319-541-8434

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