Opportunities for pro bono service are available to attorneys in all areas of practice and no two cases are alike. For four Minnesota attorneys who banded together from a variety of firms, a case came along that will forever stay in their hearts and minds.
May we please come in!” begged one of the Riviera* brothers over the radio.
“No. You have to stay at the listening post!” screamed Commander Johnsen* from his bunker.
Eighteen-year-old Larry Stigen heard these cries for help from his friends while in his bunker at Landing Zone (LZ) Jamie, a forwarding operating base outside of Quan Loi in Tay Ninh province, Vietnam. The date was May 12, 1969. Stigen was assigned to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, of the 1st Cavalry Division.
Around 1:00 a.m. the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sent mortar rounds into Stigen’s LZ and about 25 NVA military engineers—”sappers”—disarmed the mines protecting the LZ. The NVA surrounded the perimeter.
Stigen was scared. He and the 14 other men in his bunker did what they were trained to do: they blew Claymores—directional anti-personnel mines often used in perimeter defense—and fired many rounds from their M-16 assault rifles. Stigen fired so many rounds that his weapon was smoking; he had to keep pouring oil through the M-16 constantly.
Meanwhile, NVA-fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) were falling just short of Stigen’s bunker and the concussion from one of the RPG hits left Stigen temporarily deaf in his left ear. His ears continued to ring for several days.
Soon the U.S. helicopter gunships took over, dropping napalm—an incendiary mixture of polystyrene, benzene, and gasoline—just outside the perimeter. Anything that dropped right outside the wire was burning and men were screaming and dying. Bodies burning and dying is the image forever stuck in Stigen’s memory.
The combat ended that morning, about eight hours after the first mortar round hit, but the nightmare went on even in the light of the rising sun.
“We crawled out of our holes like animals,” recounts Stigen. “We truly saw what no man should see.” Stigen said:
What I saw cannot be put into words. It is something felt in the middle of your throat and deep in the pit of your stomach; something you smell, only it’s a smell that sickens and repulses you, something no one should see, especially being 18 years of age. Bodies everywhere, limbs scattered, the smoldering smoke and smell of burnt flesh, and blood. Blood everywhere, including on me. We did a body count. I threw up.
The engagement would scar Larry Stigen in more ways than one, and after 40 years he’s still healing. But thanks to a group of Minnesota attorneys who offered their services pro bono, Stigen has hope of receiving the benefits and recognition due for his service.
Pro Bono Opportunity
If you ask most lawyers why they chose to go into law, many will tell you that they wanted to make a difference in someone’s life or within their community. They may have envisioned themselves fighting battles on behalf of people wronged or using their legal talents to develop public policy. Many who chose to take positions with law firms, however, also realized that they can still serve the public and assist the disadvantaged by participating in pro bono programs through their firm or other organizations. Some, like Patrick Burns, John Satorius, John Degnan, and Patrick Mahlberg—the four Minnesota attorneys representing Larry Stigen—have been fortunate enough to find that one pro bono case that will forever stay in their hearts and minds.
Today, as our country is engaged in two wars overseas, we honor our returning soldiers by welcoming them with open arms and by providing programs that help them acclimate back into civilian life. As some will tell you, this has not always been the case.
It is estimated that more than 3.5 million Americans served in Vietnam, with an estimated 1 to 1.5 million suffering from some sort of psychological injury, many from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). If veterans asked for help, the syndrome was often dismissed or misdiagnosed. But, more often than not, Vietnam-era veterans returned home to a hostile public and were too proud or too ashamed or embarrassed to seek treatment.
Larry Stigen is one of those veterans who returned home from Vietnam like so many others—emotionally scarred, ashamed, and alone. As Stigen recalls: “When you got off the plane to come back to the U.S. it was still bad news. So I grew hair and I grew a beard to cover it all up. I did a little self-recovery in Alaska to hide from everyone.” What was Stigen hiding from? He had suffered the kind of traumatic battle experience that we recognize today requires immediate treatment for PTSD. But as a Vietnam veteran, Larry Stigen felt he had to hide from his experience, and he did just that—he kept it to himself, not telling even his wife and children—for nearly 40 years.
Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
On the morning after the attack, Stigen’s squad was sent outside the LZ wire to search for the Riviera Brothers who had been pleading to come in from the listening post. Stigen’s squad found them buried alive in dirt and debris, both burned by napalm and wounded by shrapnel. One brother lost his left arm.
“I cried,” said Stigen. “And so did others.”
Around 10:00 a.m. the Army flew a bulldozer in. The bulldozer pushed all the bodies and parts into a pile and dug a trench to bury them.
Stigen walked the LZ like a zombie. He saw the medic and told the medic about the deafness in his left ear. All he could hear was a constant ringing. Despite Stigen’s apparent disability, Commander Johnsen ordered him to man the listening post.
“With the ringing ears and walking like a zombie in a daze, I was no good to myself or anyone, said Stigen, “especially my brothers in arms. I disappeared”
Stigen went AWOL—leaving the firebase to wander aimlessly around his base camp for 44 days, where he was again denied treatment for his mental condition, and then finally making his way back to the United States. After four years of wrestling with both his conscience and his guilt over what he had seen and done in Vietnam, Stigen turned himself in to authorities. He did not tell the Army what had happened to him because, he says, “I was ashamed.” He was given a discharge “for the good of the service under conditions other than honorable (38 U.S.C. §503(a)) due to his prolonged absence from service.”
Since then, Stigen has suffered classic PTSD symptoms—anger, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and an inability to maintain close relationships. Finally, after more than ten years of counseling, he told his therapist about his Vietnam service. Once that was out in the open, Stigen was accurately diagnosed and began treatment for this debilitating syndrome. It was then that he reached out for help in upgrading his military discharge so he could receive the service-related benefits he deserved.
Band of Brothers
As fate would have it, Stigen’s path crossed with the four dedicated Minnesota lawyers—three of whom are veterans, and two of whom served in Vietnam—who banded together to create a pro bono “band of brothers.” Satorius and Degnan both served in Vietnam and Satorius was with the 8th Combat Engineer Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division in the area very close to the LZ where Stigen fought for his life.
Stigen first reached out to Patrick Burns, a former Army JAG lawyer now practicing with Dady & Garner, who had placed his name on a military assistance referral list in Wisconsin. Stigen told Burns that his daughter had helped him apply for benefits, but that an administrative panel of the Department of Veteran Affairs found him ineligible because of the discharge he had received.
Burns knew enough military law to know that Stigen’s case was exceptional, so he offered to look into a basis for appeal. “I’ve done pro bono work in the past, but nothing like this” recalls Burns. “When Larry called me and told me of the events, my JAG experience kicked in, and I knew something had to be done. It just wasn’t right that the VA denied Larry benefits.”
Burns called Pam Wandzel, pro bono coordinator at Fredrikson & Byron, to ask for assistance, and she in turn broadcast the request to lawyers in the firm. John Satorius, a transactional business lawyer and Vietnam veteran, responded. Satorius explained, “Anyone who served in the field in Vietnam would immediately understand the stress endured by these young soldiers. I knew I had to try to help.” Satorius also knew that the case went beyond his expertise in military law, and requested that others with more experience be recruited to assist.
Burns called upon John Degnan, another Vietnam vet who handles medical malpractice cases at Briggs and Morgan. Degnan agreed to help immediately. “Larry’s case is particularly frustrating because in 1975-76, during my last year of law school, William Mitchell had a Military Law Clinic where we helped countless Vietnam vets get an upgrade from their discharge to get benefits,” said Degnan. “Nobody that I saw who was granted benefits had as compelling a story as Larry’s.” Finally, Fredrikson litigation associate Patrick Mahlberg was recruited to help analyze and develop strategies.
Grounds for Appeal
Together, the team gathered information from military archives and interviewed witnesses, including family members who would attest to the severe symptoms experienced by Stigen over the past 40 years, former soldiers who served with him during the battle, and his treating psychiatrist. In an affidavit regarding that fateful night, one former comrade explained the battle of May 12, 1969 this way: “If you truly want to know what happened on LZ Jamie, and what it was like for everyone, rent the movie “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” by Mel Gibson. View the movie in total darkness, turn the volume all the way up, sit with your nose pressed to the screen, and watch it over and over again. Everything that happens in that movie happened to the troops of the 7th Cavalry on LZ Jamie.”
What the team soon realized was that the Department of Veteran Affairs decision denying benefits did not take into account the ferocity of the all-night battle that occurred on LZ Jamie, nor did it take into account the extent of Stigen’s involvement in the battle and the resulting trauma caused by the stress. After reviewing the regulations, Stigen’s lawyers decided that the best grounds for appeal was the argument that Stigen’s discharge status did not automatically deprive him of benefits because compelling circumstances caused him to go AWOL. The lawyers argued on appeal that Stigen’s case fits an exception to the rule denying medical benefits, based on a finding that his AWOL was caused by “hardship incurred during overseas service that should be carefully and sympathetically considered in evaluating state of mind at the time the prolonged AWOL period began.” (Department Regulation Section 3.12(c)(6)(ii)).
“There is a certain feeling, but for the grace of God, we have our lives. It could have been me or John [Satorius] in the battle of LZ Jamie,” says Degnan. There is a connection between Vietnam vets that is hard to explain—but it’s almost palpable.”
Stigen had his hearing in September 2008 where he was able to present his case and supporting documents to an administrative law judge from Washington D.C. who flew to Minnesota for Stigen’s appeal. As this article goes to press, Stigen and his team of attorneys are still waiting for a decision. It may be another year or two before one is handed down.
“It’s a very frustrating legal process,” laments Satorius. “However, personally and professionally, it has also been one of the most rewarding pro bono experiences I’ve ever had. To get to know and help Larry, to work with other dedicated veterans—along with an enthusiastic associate—to try to right this situation, has been extremely worthwhile. I’m proud of the work we have done on Larry’s behalf.” The members of the pro bono team added that, at a personal level, it has been deeply rewarding to tell Larry Stigen face-to-face, that as veterans and as citizens, they are proud of what he has done for his country and that he has every right to be proud as well.
“We’re hopeful,” said Burns.
* Names changed for privacy
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