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Military News

Lawyers needed to help veterans cut red tape

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Published:   |   Updated: July 7, 2014 at 05:27 AM

St. Petersburg-based lawyer Matt Weidner devotes a good deal of time helping veterans navigate the legal system.

He says his motivation is simple.

“I feel guilty about not being a veteran,” Weidner says. “I was not man enough to serve, and so while I have regrets, I realize I have other skills. I just started trying to find other ways to help.”

Weidner, 42, says he started getting involved with veterans a few years ago and has made it a priority ever since.

Now this son of a retired Air Force captain wants to get even more involved, and has applied to take part in a pilot program, being run by the American Bar Association and the Department of Veterans Affairs, aimed at helping veterans obtain the VA compensation owed to them for serving the country.

The Veterans Claims Assistance Network is looking for lawyers in St. Petersburg and Chicago to help veterans cope with a sometimes daunting compensation claims process, where more than 400,000 veterans across the country have been waiting 125 days or more for just a rating, the formula that determines what level of compensation a veteran will receive.

The claims assistance program was hatched in the White House, according to ABA President James R. Silkenat.

With so many veterans waiting so long for compensation ratings, the ABA was approached by the White House General Counsel’s office in the spring of 2013 to find out whether there were lawyers interested in helping reduce the burgeoning backlog.

“A robust community of law firms, solo practitioners, law clinics and others provide such support, and the ABA already had a strong track record in delivering pro bono legal services to active-duty military personnel through its Military Pro Bono Project,” Silkenat says.

The association got together with the White House and Department of Veterans Affairs, and, relying on lessons learned from the existing pro bono program, developed the claims assistance program, Silkenat says.

The ABA and VA signed an agreement last month to set up the two pilot programs.

Chicago and St. Petersburg were selected by the VA, Silkenat says, in part because the ABA’s headquarters is in Chicago and given the community support for veterans in both cities.

The pilot programs will run through next year and, should they prove successful, the ABA hopes to expand the model based on need and availability of money and other resources, Silkenat says.

The goal, Silkenat says, is to create a “workable, effective, sustainable and replicable model to engage lawyers to help veterans develop and complete their VA disability claims, at no cost to the veteran.”

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So how will the ABA measure success?

Ultimately, by “whether the veterans are able to receive sufficient pro bono legal services to result in rapid, accurate adjudication of their claims and subsequent receipt of benefits in an expedited fashion.”

About 3,300 veterans will be eligible to participate, Silkenat says. There are four criteria for being chosen, he says.

The veteran must be currently unrepresented, the application must be backlogged, the claim must be filed with either the Chicago or St. Petersburg VA Regional Office and the veteran must not be eligible for expedited adjudication under any other VA claim category.

Because no one knows how many of those veterans, selected by the VA, will actually take part, the ABA is recruiting as many lawyers as possible “to ensure that we can quickly place every veteran with a volunteer lawyer.”

The ABA prefers lawyers experienced in VA matters and having covered the claims backlog for some time, I completely understand why.

For those less familiar with America’s favorite bureaucracy, the ABA will “provide training, VA accreditation assistance, and expert support throughout the volunteer attorney’s work with the veteran,” Silkenat says. “Although the pilot program focuses on veterans with backlogged claims in VA Regional Offices in Chicago and St. Petersburg, many of these claims can be assisted by VA-accredited lawyers located anywhere in the country.”

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The number of veterans who have been waiting 125 days or more for their initial benefits compensation rating remains a vexing issue for the VA, but is hardly the only problem. At the Veterans Benefits Administration’s St. Petersburg Regional Office, the nation’s busiest claims processing facility, more than 18,000 of the more than 33,000 veterans seeking compensation ratings have been waiting at least 125 days. But there are also nearly 21,000 veterans who have appealed the initial decisions, according to Bruce Clisby, a regional office spokesman.

Though the number of pending appeals has held steady for several months, the White House General Counsel’s Office identified the compensation claims backlog as the area for lawyers to address, Silkenat says.

“Development and preparation of VA disability compensation claims draws upon skills that lawyers have by virtue of their training and experience,” Silkenat says. “Lawyers fundamentally understand what it takes to assemble evidence and present a persuasive case. It is a natural fit to engage the legal skills of lawyers with the need of veterans for assistance in making their cases to the VA for disability compensation.”

Weidner, who was born in Daytona Beach but now lives on this side of the state, says he is eager to lend a hand.

“We have a real crisis,” he says.

The program launches Aug. 4, according to VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz, with election letters being shipped to preselected veterans. For more information, or if you are a lawyer who wants to sign up, go www.ABAVCAN.org.

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I go to a lot of events for veterans and there are some people I see again and again.

Mary Ann Keckler is one of them.

Which is probably why she was just named Veteran of the Year by the Florida Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans.

Keckler was a petty officer 3rd class when she finished her four-year tour of duty in the Navy that ended in 1962.

“Very few women were serving at the time,” Keck­ler tells me when I call to talk to her about the award. “It was different. Women were not as well respected back then as they are today for serving.”

Now 74, Keckler says she was “one of the aggressive ones,” a statement that makes me laugh.

“You?” I ask facetiously. “I never would have guessed.”

Keckler tells me she was so aggressive that she put in for dangerous assignments around the world, including a place called Vietnam.

“They weren’t sending women there,” she recalls. “But I hand-walked my request to the commander of the base. He looked at me, and said, ‘Maryann, stay in 10 years and you’ll have everything you want.’ He was right. It did happen, but not while I was in. I should have listened to him and stayed in.”

But there were job offers beckoning, so Keckler hung up her sailor suit and went to work for the telephone company.

She remained close to the veteran community.

A decade ago she founded Haley House Fund, designed to help families with a loved one being treated at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

“For those living over 50 miles from the center and qualifying for aid based on income limits, the Haley House Fund is housing the families of these veterans during their treatments,” according to the organization’s website. “The Haley House Fund provides living arrangements for families to spend needed time with the recovering current duty injured and veterans. In early April 2005 we opened a comfort center, coin-operated washing machine and dryer, television, swimming pool and game area, free to those visiting Haley House. Each room has a separate sitting room and bedroom.”

Keckler, who has served as the the DAV’s state chair for volunteer services, also spends about 100 hours a week at the hospital, helping veterans as they recuperate and their families.

The award, presented two weeks ago at the state chapter’s conference in Lake Mary, was a surprise, Keckler says.

“I got the Volunteer of the Year award two years ago nationally,” she says. “But this one shocked the heck out of me.”

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The Pentagon reported no troop deaths last week.

There have been 2,323 U. S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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