The Service Connection – Spring 2017

Veterans’ Law Newsletter

The Service Connection – Spring 2017

Responding to VA Letters

 

When the VA issues a decision on your disability claim, it is required by law to notify you and your representative of its decision and of your appellant rights. Ordinarily, you and your representative will receive a paper copy of the decision listing the reasons the VA granted or denied the claim and informing you of your right to appeal the decision.

Veterans’ appellant rights are governed by specific time periods. Once the VA has made a decision, you have limited time to file an appeal. If that time runs out before the VA receives your appeal request, the claim will become final and you will no longer be able to appeal.

But what happens if the VA has mailed a decision to you but not your representative? The clock starts regardless. You have received notice of the VA’s decision, so it’s your responsibility to file an appeal within one year’s time.

If you assume your representative has also received a copy of VA correspondence, you probably expect him or her to respond to the VA. But if you don’t inform your representative that a decision has been received and the time period to appeal a claim elapses, you can’t argue that the VA should accept your appeal out of time.

Why is this? The United States Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims has held that “there is a presumption of regularity under which it is presumed that government officials properly discharge their official duties.” This means it is assumed that the VA always properly discharges its official duties by mailing a copy of a decision to the last known address of the veteran.

In other words, once the VA has decided a claim, it is presumed for legal purposes that it mailed a copy of the decision to the veteran and his or her representative. The time period for appeal begins the day it was presumed the VA mailed the decision. If time expires, it is not sufficient to argue that the veteran’s representative did not receive the decision to force the VA to accept an appeal out of time.

If you receive any written correspondence from the VA regarding your disability claims, immediately notify your representatives.

Captain Berry (right) receiving his Bronze Star at II Field Force.

Ceremonies in Vietnam

By John Stevens Berry Sr.

When I was ordered to assemble for a formal presentation of decoration, I found myself irritated and put upon. Another waste of time, I thought. But with the intervening years, I have come to understand the importance of ceremonies in the military and life in general. Once I was in the Angel Wing of the Cambodian Border. It was Firebase Tracy, Landing Zone San Houston, and it was hot. Nights we would sleep under steel culvert halves covered with sand bags. In the morning were the memorial services with boots, weapons, and helmets for whomever was in the body bags to be shipped back.

Trial by court martial is itself an ancient ceremony. The rules are followed under extreme conditions. Once, in the midst of a trial, someone shouted “Incoming!” and as we all ran for the bunkers, the military judge, LTC Jack Crouchet, had the presence of mind to yell “Recess!” The prosecutor and I, court room adversaries, were brothers in arms.

On another occasion, I was assigned to represent an American soldier who had raped a Vietnamese woman. She was sobbing hysterically at the conclusion of the proceedings. Her interpreter told me that her husband refused to sleep with her unless she had a certificate from the United States Army stating that she was honorable, and that whatever happened was not her fault. I was happy to draw up such a document in the best English, French, and Vietnamese I could cobble together. I signed it with a flourish and managed to attach a little piece of ribbon to the bottom. I then sent my Tiger Scout interpreter back with her to present the document to her husband along with the symbolic bag of rice and apology always presented when we settled foreign claims.

A small ceremony, yet it did make a difference. At many units there was a “gone but not forgotten” board. At first, I am certain, it was meant to be festive; a kind of going away salute to our comrades who had DEROS orders back to the World. But as is inevitable in war, it evolved into something much more somber. Of course I remember standing at the Black Wall, weeping as I ran my hand over the name of my cousin, John Stevens.

Sometimes you can feel the lack of ceremony, also. My final minutes in the Army, after I had done all of my out-processing at the Presidio of San Francisco, was to go into the headquarters building, put a copy of my final orders through a slot in the stand, and sign out in the guest book. Polished floors, bright chandeliers, but not a soul there to pat me on the back or say “attaboy”.

Yes, we do need our ceremonies.

Lorraine’s Corner

Lorraine worked at the VA for 37 years before joining our team.

By Lorraine Chrastil

The VA has recently approved presumptive service connection for certain diseases caused by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

There are many other sources of hazardous exposures in service. These include asbestos, burn pits, chemical and biological weapons, or exposure to mustard or nerve agents from demolishing or handling explosive ordinance in Iraq. Lesser known sources include Project 112/Project SHAD (Military tests of chemical/biological warfare materials conducted in the 1960s to early 1970s) and Edgewood/Aberdeen experiments involving classified medical studies of low-dose chemical agents conducted from 1955-1975.

Potential exposures at Fort McClellan, Alabama (closed in 1999) include radioactive compounds, chemical warfare agents, and airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Monsanto plant in the neighboring town. More information about these exposures can be found at the VA Public Health website.

Attorney Spotlight: Andrew Strotman

We are proud to welcome Andrew Strotman to the firm.

Andrew served ten years in the Marine Corps, first as an infantry officer and later as a judge advocate. He graduated summa cum laude from the Creighton University School of Law. As a trial defense counsel at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Andrew participated in the defense of several high-profile cases involving charges ranging from homicide to capital espionage. Following his Marine Corps service, he practiced 26 years at a large Nebraska firm as a criminal and civil litigator, as well as the firm’s general counsel.

The addition of Andrew Strotman is a testament to our rapid growth in recent years. Our nationwide reputation for handling veterans’ disability claims has led us to open another office in Kansas City and place veterans’ lawyers in Phoenix, Arizona and Sydney, Australia.