When Bart Stichman ’74 first began working on behalf of veterans rights more than 40 years ago, he recalls, “veterans were really treated as second-class citizens.” Judicial review of decisions made by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was severely limited, and lawyers could not charge more than $10 as a fee for representing veterans seeking government benefits, a limit dating back to the Civil War. “[Veterans] couldn’t go to federal court, as most citizens could, to contest a denial of benefits,” Stichman says. “And they didn’t have access to attorneys, except on a pro bono basis, to help them.”
In the decades since, “there’s been a tremendous amount of change,” Stichman observes, noting that veterans have better access to representation and can now obtain judicial review of benefits denials. Much of that change is due to Stichman’s work at the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), which he co-founded with David Addlestone in 1981, and where he has served as executive director ever since.
Stichman first met Addlestone through Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law Norman Dorsen. Stichman was a fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, which Dorsen headed. Upon graduating, Stichman began working with Addlestone on the National Military Discharge Review Project, which eventually turned into NVLSP.
After forming NVLSP, Stichman recalls, “there were challenges, many challenges, to take on.” The first was fighting for the repeal of the ban on judicial review of VA decisions—successfully achieved in 1988 when Congress created the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims through the passage of the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act. That Act also raised the $10 limit on attorney fees for claims that had been denied by the VA. (Later, in 2007, Congress would allow lawyers to charge a “reasonable fee” at the agency level as well.)
NVLSP’s next challenge involved advocating for veterans within the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Over the next 30 years, NVLSP filed nearly 5,000 individual appeals, with a success rate of more than 90 percent. In addition, the landmark class action case Nehmer v. US Department of Veterans Affairs, NVLSP successfully represented in US District Court Vietnam veterans who had been denied disability and death benefits for conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange. That victory resulted in over $4.6 billion in retroactive benefits for Vietnam veterans.
“The Nehmer case is the one we’re most proud of,” Stichman says.
Stichman also takes pride in the NVLSP’s creation of the Veterans Benefits Manual, a 2,000-page treatise published in 1991 and updated on an annual basis, which has helped expand the pool of effective advocates in the field.
More recently, in Procopio v. Wilkie, NVLSP joined with a group of lawyers in representing the “blue-water” Vietnam veterans—veterans of the Navy who served in the waters off the coast of Vietnam but did not serve on land. The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled this year in a 9–2 decision that those veterans should not be excluded from receiving benefits due to illnesses from Agent Orange exposure.
NVLSP’s newest priority, Stichman explains, is to secure benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been exposed to toxic chemicals from what are known as “burn pits.”
“Exposure to toxic substances [is] one area where the VA tends to be most resistant to paying benefits,” Stichman says. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military set up large areas to burn all the refuse and waste they accumulated…and a lot of toxic chemicals were spewed out.” Veterans exposed to these chemicals are developing “illnesses that are just like the Vietnam veterans [exposed to] Agent Orange.”
As executive director, Stichman oversees all of the cases that NVLSP takes on. “My love is the law reform cases,” Stichman says. “That’s always been my favorite part of the work.” And the most rewarding part of those cases, he says, is knowing that NVLSP is helping people get access to the benefits they need: “That’s why I went into law in the first place—to be able to help people who are underrepresented.” n
Posted May 30, 2019; updated August 21, 2019