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

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Sturm College of Law

VAP has recovered more than $15.7 million in benefits and services for veterans

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Veterans Advocacy Project

Fifty years after serving in Vietnam, a veteran and Purple Heart recipient we'll call, “Bill,” did not receive Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation benefits for his combat injuries. 

In fact, because he showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bill received an "other than honorable discharge" from the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, the VA didn't recognize PTSD, 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, thanks to the important work of his wife and the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law Veterans Advocacy Project (VAP), Bill gained access to his benefits. VAP student lawyers worked tirelessly to change his discharge status to honorable, securing VA disability compensation benefits.

Each year, about 7,000 service members receive a less than honorable discharge. The VAP represents a number of these service members, who, like Bill, are unable to receive services or benefits.

“I think Bill's case is a clear example of why the work the VAP does is so important," says Alice Hansen, a third-year law student who advocated on Bill’s behalf. It not only shows the devastating impact that having an 'other than honorable discharge' can have on a veteran and his or 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.”

Many of the VAP’s clients suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, known to many as the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students in the VAP learn about mental health challenges from 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," says Ann Vessels, founder and director of the VAP. "The client had waited a long time for this result, and she was with him every step of the way.”

In the past few months, six VAP clients received a change in their discharge status and are now entitled to disability compensation benefits and 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,” Hansen says. “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.”