How perseverance, determination and a bit of luck finally brought VA benefits to a traumatized Vietnam vet.
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In a 2009 photo, attorneys (left to right) Patrick Mahlberg, Patrick Burns, John Satorius, and John Degnan stand with their client Larry Stigen.
It’s been nearly five years since Bench & Bar brought you the story of Larry Stigen—a Vietnam combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who was being denied benefits by the Veterans Administration—and of the pro bono team of Minnesota lawyers that came to his aid. (See “Pro Bono Band of Brothers,” October 2009.)
Now, seven years after beginning their work on Larry’s behalf, his legal team has a victory to report: Larry has been granted the VA medical benefits that he was so long denied. A related effort to upgrade his discharge status continues. But let’s go back to the beginning of our story.
Larry was just 18 when he enlisted and was shipped to Vietnam in 1969. He soon found himself fighting to defend Landing Zone Jamie, a remote firebase near the Cambodian border, in one of the most intense battles of the war. Shortly afterward Larry—who was wounded, in a state of shock, and suffering from what we now know as PTSD—reacted by going AWOL. Later he was given an “undesirable” discharge, which both ignored his bravery before and during the battle and left him to confront PTSD alone, without any VA treatment or benefits.
Larry kept his story entirely inside himself for years, dealing alone with his guilt and the debilitating consequences of PTSD. He married and had children, but no one learned the cause of his struggles until 2006, when he finally disclosed his story to a psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed Larry’s PTSD. Larry then filed a claim for benefits with the VA and a claim with the Army for a discharge upgrade, but both claims were rejected out of hand.
In 2007 Larry met Patrick R. Burns, a former Army JAG lawyer now practicing in Minneapolis who had volunteered his name on the lawyer-to-lawyer list published by the State Bar of Wisconsin. From there, serendipity took over – Patrick called Pam Wandzel, pro bono manager at Fredrikson & Byron, to see if they had anyone who could help Larry with his benefits claim. She approached John Satorius, a senior corporate lawyer and Vietnam veteran. John quickly felt a special connection to Larry: He had served with the combat engineers in the same division as Larry, on a sister firebase very close to the one where Larry was stationed.
Eager as he was to help Larry, John knew that the appeals team needed more military law experience. John Degnan, another Vietnam veteran and PTSD expert at Briggs & Morgan, then joined the team, and Patrick Mahlberg, a young associate with Fredrikson & Byron, also agreed to assist.
Larry’s team initially focused on appealing the VA’s rejection of Larry’s 2006 PTSD claim. In 2012, frustrated with continual rejections and delays with the VA appeals, the team decided to “dual track” its efforts by recruiting Virgil Bradley of Cornerstone Family Law, an Iraq war veteran with expertise in discharge upgrades, to lead another appeal for a discharge upgrade. If successful, it would have fully restored Larry’s honor and required the VA to recognize and treat Larry’s PTSD. Unfortunately, the Army denied this appeal.
Larry’s team nevertheless continued to pursue his VA claim tirelessly, persevering for a total of seven years despite an endless series of discouraging rejections by the VA. Most frustrating of all was the VA’s repeated refusal to consider both the professional opinion of Larry’s psychiatrist and the clear evidence of Larry’s PTSD that Army medics had recorded shortly after the battle.
At last Judy Ojard, a dedicated expert in VA appeals with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, joined the team to lead the final and ultimately successful appeal. In February 2015, the VA finally acknowledged that Larry is entitled to mental health treatment and disability benefits due to his PTSD.
But Larry and his team count this as only a partial victory. They are renewing their efforts to obtain a discharge upgrade pursuant to a September 2014 order by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that directed the military to consider PTSD in veterans’ petitions for discharge upgrades. This last step, if successful, will clear the undesirable discharge that was wrongfully imposed on Larry over 40 years ago and give him the recognition he deserves for having honorably served his country.
Pamela J. Wandzel is the pro bono and community service manager at Fredrikson & Byron, PA.