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Veterans Advocacy Project Secures Discharge Upgrade for Vietnam Marine, Purple Heart Recipient

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Sturm College of Law

To date, VAP has recovered more than $15.7 million in benefits and services for veterans.

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For 50 years after serving in Vietnam, veteran and Purple Heart recipient “Bill,” did not receive Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation benefits for the injuries he received in the country. 

Due to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bill received an ‘other than’ honorable discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps after serving in Vietnam. PTSD was not recognized by the VA at that time, even though it has had crippling effects on so many veterans. Because of the type of discharge, he was not eligible to receive health care or benefits from the VA for his service.

Finally, five decades after his service, Bill gained access to his benefits through the important work of his wife and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Veterans Advocacy Project (VAP). VAP student lawyers worked tirelessly to change his discharge status to honorable, securing VA disability compensation benefits.

Bill is just one of the many clients with a less than honorable discharge represented by students in the VAP.

Each year, about 7,000 service members receive a less than honorable discharge – a discharge status that prevents them from accessing the services and benefits they earned by serving their country.

“I think Bill's case is a clear example of why the work the VAP does is so important. It not only shows the devastating impact that having an ‘other than’ honorable discharge can have on a veteran and his/her family, but the vital importance of providing accessible legal services to veterans as they navigate the complex processes of applying for a discharge upgrade or disability benefits,” said Alice Hansen, 3L, who advocated on Bill’s behalf during the case.

Many of the VAP’s clients suffer from mental health disabilities, in particular, PTSD and traumatic brain injury, often referred to as the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Students in the VAP learn about mental health challenges from our partner, the Sturm Center at the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology. VAP students identify clients in need of Sturm Center services, and then graduate students at the Sturm Center provide evidence-based, personalized and culturally competent services to VAP clients.

Those services help VAP students in their work before the Department of Defense discharge review boards and the VA. Students learn how to work with non-lawyers in gathering and building the evidence they need. And, more importantly, students gain a deep understanding of how their work can impact the lives of their clients, far beyond addressing their legal needs.

“Alice worked tirelessly on behalf of the client, both with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. The client had waited a long time for this result, and she was with them every step of the way,” said VAP Founder and Director Ann Vessels.

In the past few months, six VAP clients received a change in their discharge status. Most of them received significant disability compensation benefits as a result of the discharge status change, and are now entitled to VA health care, a vital benefit for Veterans suffering from mental health disabilities. 

“The VAP is truly unique in providing no-cost legal services to Colorado veterans while providing students such as myself a hands-on opportunity to learn about this area of law and serve an incredibly deserving group of men and women,” said Hansen. “When Bill was upgraded to an honorable discharge, it entitled him to not just medical care and disability benefits but was an emotional victory for him and his family, as well.”

For more information on the VAP, visit https://www.law.du.edu/veterans-advocacy-project.

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