|Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2007|
By Jesse Wm. Barton
From the time of Caesar’s veterans’ bureau — the Aerarium Militare — politicians have struggled to realize what Lincoln came to pledge: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan(.)"
Or as Kipling said in answer to Tennyson’s paean to one of England’s military blunders: Whose shall be "the charge of" the surviving "twenty broken troopers," "the last of the Light Brigade"?
Right now Oregon lawyers can get in at the start of a whole new means of assisting veterans with their claims before the federal Veterans Administration. Oregon has a tradition of leadership in veterans’ services. It starts no later than the 1932 Bonus March, when around 45,000 World War I veterans converged on Washington, D.C. They came to demand immediate payment on the deferred-compensation bonds issued for their military service, rather than having to wait until the bonds matured in 1945.
Black and white veterans marched and bivouacked together. They created what certainly was the most racially integrated place in the nation (and which integration served as fodder for detractors’ spurious claims that the Bonus March was led by Communists). Four years after their march, the veterans got their compensation. In the process they laid the foundation for later passage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which helped create America’s middle class.
Veterans’ advocates know about the Bonus March, but they may not know about its Oregon connection. The march started from Portland, where it was conceived by an Oregonian, Walter W. Waters.
But the Bonus March shows that politically, veterans’ services are not entitlements; instead, they’re a subject of political will. For example, consider the last Congress’s initial decision against fully funding the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. When Congress first faced the choice between funding its "earmarks" and funding the center, the center lost.
And cost isn’t the sole reason veterans’ services face political opposition. There’s also the problem with generalizing sacrifice. As veterans’ advocate Julian Camp explained, when the public has to ante up for the full costs of veterans’ services, "the war comes home, to everyone."
But veterans soon will find that when it comes to getting VA services, lawyers can be their ally — more than ever before. For many years federal law essentially barred lawyers from representing veterans before the VA. In 1862, Congress barred lawyers from charging veterans a fee of greater than five dollars. In 1864, Congress raised the limit to ten dollars. It stayed there until 1988, when Congress generally barred attorney fees altogether.
That was the law until recently. Led by a group of senators, including Willamette law alumnae Lisa Murkowski, the last Congress passed S.3421. The bill should take full effect this May or June. Under it, lawyers generally will be allowed to charge fees for representing veterans before the VA. As explained by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the legislation "will be good for veterans as well as (the) VA, which received nearly 1 million claims last year. The availability of more trained advocates is sure to benefit veterans overall."
The bill was long overdue for Oregon’s veterans. As of Jan. 20, 2007, the VA’s Portland office was facing 9,426 compensation and pension claims, 28.5 percent of which had been pending for more than six months. The claims will swell when, for example, Gen. Pritt’s 41st Brigade rotates home from Afghanistan. Although the service officers employed by the state, counties, tribes and veterans’ services organizations provide a great help, there just aren’t enough of them to go around.
But thanks to S.3421, veterans won’t have to rely so exclusively on service officers. Instead, they’ll be able to do what anyone else can do who has a claim for government benefits — hire a lawyer.
The problem is that at best there are only a handful of lawyers in Oregon capable of practicing veterans’ law. Many more lawyers are needed, but they’ll need training. The most logical group to organize and provide that training may be the Oregon State Bar. If you’re interested in practicing veterans’ law, and would like the bar to sponsor a veterans’ law CLE, please state your interest in an email to email@example.com.
In the meantime, we should remember the words of Lincoln and Kipling, and Vietnam veteran Steve Hassna’s plea in his poem "#68": "Think hard, America, for the fact is I am your only son."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesse Wm. Barton is a Salem attorney and a member of the OSB Special Committee on Military Assistance.
© 2007 Jesse Wm. Barton