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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic recently won appeals for two Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, earning them both the highest possible disability rating awarded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“These efforts took teamwork and time, and everyone involved with the clinic, including our clients and our past and present students worked very hard to achieve success. We were all elated to read the ratings decisions and pass on the good news to the clients,” said Penn State Law professor and clinic director Michele Vollmer. “These were complex cases with many factors, which provided excellent practical experience for our students. But more important to us than the victories was the ability to work with these veterans and show them that our country valued and appreciated the sacrifices they made to defend our freedom.”
For Kevin Schrop, a second-year Penn State Law student who recently accepted a position with the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, his work with the clinic was about more than just the cases and the facts. It was about the people.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience,” Schrop said. “We met our clients, worked alongside them, really got to know them and became invested in their cases. These are good people who served their country who are just trying to have their voice heard, and it was an honor to be able to help them do it.”
One of the two cases involved Bob Slaney, a retired Penn State professor who developed acute myeloid leukemia (AML) related to Agent Orange exposure during his time leading a Pathfinder detachment in Vietnam. The Veterans Clinic had previously worked with him to successfully appeal the Department of Veterans Affairs’ denial of his disability benefits request, but that victory was only the first step.
After convincing the VA that Mr. Slaney’s AML was service related, the clinic still had to work to ensure that he received the proper “rating,” which reflects the severity of a veteran’s disability and determines the amount of monthly compensation a veteran receives for service-related conditions.
In this case, the clinic students worked to summarize medical evidence about the impact that the cancer had on his daily life, solicited expert opinions from medical professionals on that impact, and wrote and submitted a brief to the VA detailing the medical and legal basis for the rating he should receive —all while preparing to appeal the VA’s rating decision, if necessary, to ensure that Mr. Slaney received the benefits he deserved.
“We were very proactive with this case,” Vollmer said. “The students’ work to summarize the medical records and the law, and support that analysis with medical opinions, was persuasive and resulted in an award of 100% disability.”
The second case also required the clinic to work closely with medical professionals. The case was referred to the clinic by the Veterans Pro Bono Legal Consortium in Washington, D.C., an organization that provides pro bono assistance to veterans with appeals at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) by training attorney volunteers and law school clinics to handle the appeals. The Consortium recently awarded the clinic a $10,000 grant to be used to help pay for medical professional opinions needed to support veterans’ disability claims. The clinic students worked with an expert witness to obtain an opinion that ultimately convinced the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) on remand that the veteran’s heart disease was linked to his exposure to Agent Orange and that he deserved no less than a 100 percent rating from the VA.
This case was also complicated because it involved appealing the initial VA ratings decision to the CAVC appellate court, and then submitting medical evidence to the BVA (the VA’s administrative court) on remand. Although the process was complex, the students’ hard work once again resulted in victory for the veteran.
“It was really valuable to me to get this practical experience of working on this case,” Schrop said. “It’s not some big courtroom argument like you see on TV, it’s a long, hard process and stacks of paperwork—but in the end, that work pays off and a veteran feels valued. It was amazing to be a part of this process.”