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Penn State Law Veterans Clinic Victories Help Veterans During the Pandemic

The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic doubled its workload and handled over 19 complex matters for veterans in 2020.
Penn State Law

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic increased its assistance to those who have served our country in 2020. It doubled its workload and handled over 19 complex matters for veterans. Thanks to generous donations from past clients and friends of the Clinic, and the receipt of a grant, the Clinic was able to obtain expert nexus opinions to establish service connection for veterans, and to hire a part-time staff attorney, PSL alum and local attorney, Todd Ciancarelli, for the first time in the Clinic’s history, further expanding its reach.

The increased workload of the Clinic included four briefs filed with the Board of Veterans Appeals for Vietnam veterans with cancer and leukemia due to the great work of 3L Penn State Law students, Agneta Hendershot, Mackenzie Selleg, Alexandra DeBonte and Rebecca Heisner; six briefs filed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with assistance from 3L students Karyl Smith and Whitley Culver, PSL alumni Ryan Stanley and Won Eik Cho and LL.M. graduates, Abhipsa Dash and Lichen Duan; and one amicus brief co-authored with two other law schools filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. 3L Alexandra DeBonte was able to work on the brief and listen to the oral argument on the phone with counsel of record. One of the briefs the Clinic filed seeks compensation for a Vietnam veteran for post-traumatic stress wrongfully denied in 1994 under the clear and unmistakable error doctrine in VA law.

WE ARE proud to share short stories of the clinic’s victories for veterans:

  • The clinic won service connection for acute myeloid leukemia for Alacyn Pegher, in honor of her late husband and Vietnam veteran, Herb Pegher. The victories included a 100% disability rating with accrued benefits back to 2017, funeral benefits, and ongoing veteran survivor benefits for life. Mrs. Pegher made a generous gift of $3,000 to the clinic in Fall 2019 while her appeals were pending, and then made a second donation of $10,000 after she won her appeal. This victory was even more special because Mr. Pegher inspired her son, Penn State alumnus Robert (Roy) Walker, to participate in Navy ROTC and proudly serve our country following in Mr. Pegher’s footsteps. Mrs. Pegher wrote a letter of thanks that arrived on Veterans Day: “Michele Vollmer, clinic director, Leah Davis, clinic volunteer, and all staff and students, during the past 30 months were supportive, encouraging and professional. They were invaluable to me during my husband’s treatment, transplants, and death. Ms. Vollmer’s knowledge of veterans law and her tireless dedication never ceased to amaze me. My husband and I met with Ms. Vollmer, Ms. Davis, Brian Querry, Centre County Veteran Affairs Director, and several students. We were impressed with the interest and concern the students expressed regarding our life . . . the decision of 100% disability is solely the result of Ms. Vollmer, and her team, and their dedication and selflessness. I will be forever grateful to them.”
     
  • The clinic is in the process of appealing for similar benefits, related to both acute myeloid leukemia and ischemic heart disease, for deceased Vietnam veteran Brian Kolbe, and his widow, Linda. Their children both attended Penn State, and their son Brian wrote an email of thanks: “When I explained to my father that you all had volunteered your time to help him, he was elated. He told me that it was the first time in his life that someone other than his family appreciated his service and went out of their way to assist him. Regardless of the outcome of his VA claim, what you gave to him can never fully be expressed. You helped to restore pride for his military service and showed him that there are a lot of amazing people who care for the countless men like my father. My family and I are indebted to you all for helping bring back that pride in his last few months of his life. It’s funny to think that both my sister and I went to Penn State and we went there to get a world-class education, but now I truly believe that my sister and I went there to meet the three of you so you could help a common man regain his pride in his time in the military service. The VA Law program that has been created at Penn State is nothing short of amazing.” Alumnus Brian Kolbe was referring to Brian Querry, Centre County Veteran Affairs Director, who often works with the clinic to assist veterans, clinic director, Michele Vollmer, and 3L Alexandra DeBonte.
     
  • The clinic also won service connection for bilateral knee conditions helping a PA National Guard veteran with 30 years of service to obtain an 80% disability rating and a large back pay award since 2011. Dan Clarke, a 2L, and Whitley Culver, a 3L, led the efforts on this victory.
     
  • The clinic won more back pay for the veteran who was injected with VX as part of the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Warfare Testing Program in 1965. Two years ago, the clinic won service connection back to 1995. This appeal took part of the claim back to 1989. Appeals to take more of the claim back even further are still pending.
     
  • The work of 2L, Dan Clarke, over the summer during the pandemic, increased one Vietnam veteran’s PTSD rating from 30% to 70%, and increased another Vietnam veteran’s ratings for ischemic heart disease and peripheral neuropathy, and also obtained service connection for hearing loss and tinnitus for him.
     
  • The clinic helped an Air Force veteran to file and win a large award from the Department of Justice under its Radiation Exposure Compensation Program.

After a forced closure due to the pandemic, the Clinic will restart its Military Mondays program in January 2021. It will be a virtual program focusing on helping veterans with disability claims and appeals. More information will be circulated in the new year.

Michele Vollmer, director of the Clinic, clinical professor of law, and Membership Chair and 2019-20 Board of Directors member of the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium (NLSVCC), co-created a National Case Rounds initiative for NLSVCC members, where clinic law students and law professors engage with an expert on a veterans law topic once a month, allowing Clinic students at Penn State Law to expand both their knowledge and network.

The Veterans and Servicemembers’ Legal Clinic trains Penn State Law students to provide legal representation to veterans and current service members in specialized and complex areas of statutory and regulatory law, and to advocate on behalf of veterans and those serving in the military on policy matters at both the state and federal levels. For more information on the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, visit its website or email veteransclinic@pennstatelaw.psu.edu.

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