Thursday, March 13, 2008



Law Students Try To Help Veterans In Benefits Battles

By KAREN BRANCH-BRIOSO of The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - As a projectionist for the Army Air Forces in World War II, Ella Robitaille played training films for troops heading to battle.

"I showed the fellows how to take care of themselves with diseases and stuff," said Robitaille, 83, of Apollo Beach.

Wednesday, it was her turn to learn how to help herself. In a darkened room, students and a professor from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law projected slide after slide onto a wall at South Tampa's American Legion Post 5 with details on benefits available to veterans.

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The mobile law school is in town today, too, to provide free legal assistance to veterans such as Robitaille and to educate them about federal benefits. Tampa is the sixth city on the nationwide tour of Project SALUTE, which helps veterans and trains local lawyers to follow up with those with federal benefits needs.

Failing health and failing pocketbooks brought many of the veterans to the Tampa leg of the tour.
Robitaille, a six-time cancer survivor who takes 10 prescriptions, long relied on free prescriptions and no-fee doctors' visits from Veterans Affairs. Then, acting as guardian to her ailing sister-in-law Blanche Johnson, she sold Johnson's mobile home in 2004.

"When I sold her house, they reported it to the IRS as my money," Robitaille said. "Now, they're getting me to pay for income tax on $50,000 that wasn't mine. They took my VA benefits from me. In 2005, I got a $2,000 bill from the VA. I still owe more than $1,500. If I don't pay it, I'll lose some of my Social Security benefits."

Students Commit To Follow-Up

After the slideshow, Robitaille met with second-year law student Katherine Carr, who took down the details of her case — and promised to get back to her.

"As law students, we can't give them specific legal advice," Carr said. "We'll be discussing the cases with the supervisor that's on the trip with us. Hopefully, we'll be able to help them by referring them to pro bono attorneys in the area."

On Friday, the law school will hold a training session for lawyers interested in providing free help to veterans.

Carr said she and her colleagues mainly fielded requests for help from veterans whose claims had been denied by the VA.

Arthur Jones, 58, of St. Petersburg, said he's barely surviving on his $900-a-month veterans pension. He knows he would receive a much fatter disability check if he had proof his bad back came from injuries when he was in the Army from 1969 to 1970. He's tried since 1975 to get service-connected disability status, but the VA told him his military records were among those destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Then last year, the VA's regional office discovered his full medical file. He plans to re-open his application for service-connected benefits. Wednesday, he came for free advice on how to do that.
"Before I re-open my case, I want to make sure everything is correct," Jones said. "I only get $900 from the government now. The VA gave me a disability pension. But it's not enough to live on."

Learning About Limits

The veterans learned about the available benefits even if their disability was unrelated to military service. Those benefits are available to disabled veterans with low income: at most, $11,181 a year if they have no dependents; $14,643 with a dependent.

Those income limits earned a Korean War veteran from Riverview a VA denial of disability benefits. But it takes two months' worth of his Social Security and pension benefits to pay for his 14 prescriptions. So he came Wednesday for advice.

The veteran, who didn't want to be identified for this report, said the law student who heard his story suggested he apply again.

Kendall Koch, 60, of St. Petersburg, also came after his claim was rejected.

He said he served in the Army during the Vietnam era as a nuclear weapons maintenance technician in Greece and Germany. After decades of suffering from infections all over his body that could never be cured, he said his private physician in Indiana suggested he might be suffering from radiation poisoning.

He filed a disability claim with the VA.

"All's I get is they denied my claim," said Koch, who said his doctor at the local VA hasn't yet offered the same diagnosis — but he seems perplexed by Koch's recurring infections. "He's never seen the likes of what's going on with me."

Undeterred, Koch sat on a bench Wednesday outside the American Legion post, determinedly filling out a questionnaire that he hopes will get him another chance at a diagnosis of a service-connected disability.

Leroy Johnson, 59, of Brandon, came with similar hopes.

Just a few years away from a full state pension, he underwent a quadruple bypass in February. He's worried he won't be able to work through full retirement age. He is an Army veteran who served in Vietnam during the time of Agent Orange exposure.

So he came to see whether his heart condition could be attributed to his military service. He fears for his financial future.

"If I cannot work anymore, I certainly would like to have some type of compensation," Johnson said.


posted by Larry Scott
Founder and Editor
VA Watchdog dot Org


There should be programs like this in every state and or large city where this nations veterans can get help with the VA is is not the non-adversarial agency the government makes it out to be, it is frustrating, agitating and stacked against the veterans, they need legal help, I know the veteran service organizations are supposed to help them but when they refuse to return calls, tell veterans to be happy with 50% awards and shut up when the veterans are totally disabled, then lawyers are needed.

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