When Bart Stichman ’74 first began working on behalf of veterans rights more than 40 years ago, he says, “veterans were really treated as second-class citizens.” At the time, there was a bar to judicial review of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and lawyers could not charge more than 10 dollars as a fee for representing veterans seeking government benefits, a limit that dated 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. That was the state of the law when I entered the field.”
In the decades since, “there’s been a tremendous amount of change,” Stichman says, noting that veterans now have access to judicial review of benefits claims, as well as better access to representation. Much of that change is, in fact, 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 was first introduced to Addlestone by Professor Norman Dorsen. As a student at NYU Law, Stichman was a fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, which Dorsen headed. After graduating from the Law School, Stichman began working with Addlestone on the National Military Discharge Review Project (which was affiliated at the time with the Georgetown University Law Center) to help Vietnam veterans who had been ejected from service to upgrade their statuses to honorable discharges.
By 1980, the project had moved to American University's Washington College of Law and changed its name to the National Veterans Law Center. That year, under Stichman and Addlestone’s leadership, the center won a class action suit requiring the army to upgrade illegally issued derogatory discharges to “honorable” for 7,000 Vietnam veterans. A year after that victory, Stichman and Addlestone formally incorporated the center as an independent non-profit: NVLSP.
After forming NVLSP, Stichman says, “there were challenges, many challenges, to take on.” The first was fighting for the repeal of the ban on judicial review of the VA, which they successfully achieved in 1988 when Congress created the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, which established that court, also raised the 10-dollar limit on attorney fees for cases that had been denied by the highest level of 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 that court. Over the next 30 years, NVLSP filed nearly 5,000 individual appeals with over a 90% success rate. In 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. “It helps lawyers and accredited non-lawyers who aren’t familiar with VA law, which is quite complex, and allows them to represent veterans,” he says, explaining that it has helped them in their mission to 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 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 is to secure benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been exposed to toxic chemicals from what are known as “burn pits,” Stichman says.
“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. Dioxin, which is the toxic substance that’s part of Agent Orange, benzene, all kinds… and there were so many of these burn pits that almost everybody was near one of them. And they’re coming up with 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.”
Posted May 30, 2019