When I see this image of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima, I always think what it represents: a group of people from very different backgrounds, coming together, to work together in a show of solidarity and support, and victory.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from Bob.
Bob McDonald – the new VA Secretary.
I had thanked him for some work that folks on his team did that went “above and beyond” what I’d seen out of the VA in half a decade. His reply included this sentence:
“At VA we have the blessing and responsibility to care for others.”
By now, many of you have heard of the dramatic results that Veterans have been getting when they emailed Bob McDonald directly asking for help.
In today’s post, I am going to show you how that happened in one of our cases.
What I want you to think about as you read the story is the quote I just shared with you: “It is a blessing and a responsibility to care for others.”
The story you are about to read happened because one man – the man at the helm of the VA – is willing to show how much he believes in that one phrase.
My Client, and the History of the Claim.
My client was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 31. He had been out of the military for a decade, give or take, when he received the news of his condition.
Though my client (and I) long believed that his Parkinson’s Disease was the result of exposure to Agent Orange at Clark AFB during the Vietnam War, that didn’t largely matter for this case. You see, his early Parkinson’s symptoms had begun to appear while he was in the military. They rapidly worsened in the few short years after his military service.
My client came to me in 2010, after being denied service connection for Parkinson’s. After studying and reviewing his case for several weeks he hired me in 2011.
We filed an appeal in 2011.
While we were waiting, I had a national Parkinsonian expert take a look at my client’s medical history.
The expert concluded that – by combining the onset of symptoms in the military, with the rapid progression of the disease after the military, and the fact that the client had no other Parkinsonian risk factors – the only viable explanation for the etiology of Parkinson’s disease was military service, and quite likely exposure to herbicides.
In 2013, it became clear that the VA wasn’t going to adjudicate this claim, so we filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
To moot the Writ, the VA granted a portion of the claim, but continued the denial of Service Connection for Parkinson’s disease by issuing a Statement of Case. It was clear that the rater never even looked at the medical opinion of the national Parkinsonian expert.
We immediately filed our VA Form 9 and waited for the VA to certify the appeal to the BVA.
The rest of 2013 passed.
In the meantime, I watched my client’s condition slowly worsen. He is a bright and articulate man – in a former life he was a subrogation paralegal for an insurance company. But in the few short years I was working with him, I watched as his physical condition rapidly declined. His speech was getting worse and worse.
He lost his home in a foreclosure.
He had to file for bankruptcy.
His wife was working 2 jobs to pay the bills.
His daughter even dropped out of school to help the family make ends meet.
This, unfortunately, is the story of far too many Veterans. The delays in granting VA benefits make life very, very hard on disabled Veterans.
Halfway through 2014, I was frustrated.
No matter what I tried, I could not get the VA to certify an appeal to the BVA. Emails, letters, faxes…all ignored. A few VA employees even hung up the phone on me when I called to find out what was going on.
Certifying an appeal to the BVA is such a simple thing, but until it happens, I can’t file a Motion with the BVA to expedite the hearing.
I wasn’t asking for something big or grand. But I couldn’t get anyone to listen.
It seemed like we were trapped.
And I dreaded getting a phone call that my client had passed. I hate that phone call – several of my clients have died waiting on VA decisions, and it’s the only instance in my professional career that anyone has seen me cry. I choose my clients as much as they choose me, and I genuinely like each and every one.
Hoping to find some way out of the Hamster Wheel, I got on Facebook, to chat with a Veteran that had been down this road a hundred times before.
And that’s what started a chain of events that, to me, shows the remarkable power of the VA to change Veterans’ lives … when they act.
Here are the People that Worked Together to Resolve a 4 year old claim in under 5 months.
1. Ron Nesler.
Ron is a notorious VA Trouble Maker.
He – and his daughter – were screwed over so bad by the VA that he turned a daily Facebook post that the “VA is Lying” into a massive Facebook phenomena….over 4,600 members in the “VA Is Lying” group as of this writing.
He also writes an awesome blog called the New Harmony Watch.
Ron has a soft spot in his very big heart for Vietnam and Vietnam-era Veterans, and knows a ton of people inside the VA.
I told him the struggles my client was facing, and within minutes, my office had a phone call from….
2. Dannette D.
Dannette is the assistant to the Director of the VA Regional Office in Los Angeles.
She had heard from Ron, and reached out to us to see if she could help.
When she realized that all we needed (at that time) was to talk to a Decision Review Officer (DRO), she connected us to….
3. Harold B.
Harold B was the DRO officer that held an informal conference with me and my team on this case.
Though I disagreed with his decision continuing the denial of Service Connection for my client’s Parkinson’s Disease, I have a HUGE amount of respect for Harold B.
Not only did he promptly issue a Statement of the Case, but he walked our VA Form 9 through to make sure that the appeal was immediately certified to the BVA … in days.
To help us expedite the hearing, he put us in touch with ….
4. Josie T.
Josie is the Station Hearing Coordinator at the VARO Los Angeles.
I got to meet her when I went out for the hearing in October, and she is a wonderful and warm woman who got a BVA Video-Conference Hearing scheduled for just a couple of weeks out.
This usually takes months – or years. Josie made it happen in days.
Now…that’s a lot of people helping already.
From the time that I first contacted Ron Nesler to the time we had a BVA Hearing set was under 4 months. And a LOT had happened to meet that timeline.
But we had a problem – it seems that the VA was holding out on some evidence that we needed to argue our position before the BVA.
They weren’t responding to our FOIA Requests for the C&P Exams or for the Doctor’s CV – records we badly needed to be able to show why my client’s claim had substantial (more than substantial) legal and factual merit.
Incidentally, you may have read that there is a move afoot inside the VA to block Veterans and their attorneys from getting this information – due to the VA’s fear for the physical safety of their doctors. If the quotes in this article are true, then we are seeing a VA employee in a position to affect VA policy that is pushing a personal agenda and not putting the Veteran first, in my opinion.
At this point, I was in a Catch 22:
On one hand, I couldn’t reschedule the hearing – so much work that had gone into getting this Vet an expedited BVA hearing.
On the other hand, as an attorney, I have a Duty of Loyalty to my client and could not go to the hearing without the evidence he needed to prove his claim.
So I Sent An Email to…
5. Bob McDonald.
Bob is the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs – he just took over the job earlier in 2014 after the Wait List Scandal (and a few other issues) caused his predecessor to resign.
We’ve all been promised a lot by VA Secretary after VA Secretary, and they always turn out to be empty promises.
I drafted an email, asking simply for help getting the VBA and VHA FOIA officers to follow the law and get us the documents we needed.
I figured I’d never hear back from Bob.
If not, my only recourse would be to go BACK to the Veterans Court – again – and seek an Order directing the VBA to fulfill its Duty to Assist.
I was surprised – the understatement of the year – with what happened next.
Within minutes – I said minutes – I had emails from Bob’s team, starting with….
6. Allison Hickey.
General Hickey – Allison – is the Undersecretary of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Word on the street is that the General has no love lost for attorneys; if that is true, it didn’t show in her communications with me.
I fully expected to get a terse reply saying there was nothing she could do. Instead, she said – simply – this:
“I will get the RO to get it done asap.”
True to her word, my head was spinning how fast I heard from these 2 folks (and a host of others helping out) to get the records my client needed for his BVA Hearing….
7. Shelia J and Denise S.
These 2 folks work in out of the VA in Los Angeles, one in the VBA, and one in the FOIA office.
They worked tirelessly over the next few days to get us the information we needed. And they followed up to make sure we got it.
And we did get the information – the last of it came in 1o hours before the BVA hearing. I was sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles working on my argument for the Judge when the fax hit my inbox.
Which brings us to one more person that I need to thank in this case…
8. Keith Allen.
Keith Allen is the Veterans Law Judge that decided the case.
Those of you that read this blog know that I am critical of the BVA for the often poorly written and incomplete decisions that keep Veterans in the Hamster Wheel for – unnecessarily – decades.
I am pleased to eat crow when it comes to the quality and promptness of the decision from Veterans Law Judge Keith Allen.
After listening to a 40+ minute argument laying out our position, Judge Allen looked at me and recited back the outline of my arguments – almost verbatim.
I knew I probably wouldn’t agree with his decision – its rare that I do agree with a BVA Judge – but this guy was sharp. I was impressed.
Here’s the “kicker” though: he wrote the BVA Decision in under 30 days.
For a VLJ to write a decision as thorough as the one my client received, he had to put an incredible amount of effort into this case. Studying it, weighing the VA and the Veterans arguments, researching the law, making a decision and then organizing and writing the decision is hard, hard work.
Every BVA Judge carries a docket numbering to the thousands, and it can often take 6 months to a year after the hearing to get a decision out.
So a huge Thank You to Judge Allen for the hard work and dedication that he put in to promptly issuing a decision for this Veteran. That dedication is changing a man’s life, for the better.
To all that helped on this Case: Thank You.
To all of the people listed above – and the countless dozens of others that worked behind the scenes to facilitate the results in this case that I have not mentioned…. I say Thank You.
The joy of my professional life has been working to help Veterans and their Survivors to get closure on the VA Benefits process and get on with their lives.
That joy is amplified when I find people like all of those listed above who TRULY want to help – and serve – those who served our nation.
Thank you for renewing my faith in people – for renewing my faith that there is hope that this VA Bureaucracy CAN work to fully reintegrate Veterans to civilian life.
There are 3 things I want you to take away from this story:
1) It Takes a Village.
The Veteran who cannot advocate for himself hires an attorney to help. The attorney stymied by the impenetrable walls of a well-fortified bureaucracy, asks for VA employees to help. And VA employees who WANT to help cannot help unless they are lead by someone that TRULY believes that it is a “blessing and responsibility to care for others”.
You may not like attorneys, you may not like VA employees…heck, you may not like Veterans…but when all of us can come together on a common mission, we can change people’s lives.
For the better.
2) The VA Bureaucracy CAN change.
It certainly did here.
I have 2 more stories just like this – and have heard HUNDREDS more from Veterans all over Social Media – where an email to Bob or Allison Changed the Way Veterans Experienced the VA Claims Process.
The work VA employees do is SO important – not only does it get our Veterans the access to medical care, not only does it get them the benefits they need to stabilize their financial lives or to pay for outside caregivers to come in and help, but the work of VA employees shows how much – and sometimes how little – you care about the sacrifices they have made.
And this one story is not representative of Agency wide change – it inspires it, but there is still a LOT of work to do. Veterans don’t trust the VA. They don’t feel respected by the VA. They feel ignored, isolated and attacked by the VA. Here’s how one Veteran described the VA to me earlier this week
“The VA is a formidable opposing force whom I must overcome”.
Nobody wants that. I hope nobody wants that.
Remember that each Veteran who comes across your path is a human being, with real human struggles.
I beg each and every employee at the VA to follow Bob and Allison’s lead – ask yourself “What Would Bob Do?”
Publish your work phone number and email so that it is available to Veterans and their advocates…invite Veterans to contact you … and then help them when they do contact you.
Yes, some Veterans will be angry. Some Veterans will be rude. But all Veterans need a hand as we reintegrate into civilian life.
To each VA employee I ask this question: what if YOU are the light at the end of a Veteran’s tunnel?
3) If you Have Nowhere Else to Turn, Ask for Help.
If you are looking to reach out to Bob McDonald or Allison Hickey, here are their emails.
Bob McDonald: Robert.A.McDonald@va.gov
Allison Hickey: Allison.Hickey@va.gov
When you ask for their help, just keep in mind 2 things:
1) Be polite, civil and clear in what you need (this does not mean suppress your frustration, by the way); and,
2) If they help you, tell them how their help improved your life and be sure to say Thank You.
Meet the Man that you Helped.
I want you all to see the man that you helped. Here is a video of my client shot in 2010.