Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Attorney training helps veterans who are suffering

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

It’s been 48 years since Murl Craig was wounded in Vietnam, but those injuries are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.

Emily Aldridge and Murl Craig
Army veteran Murl Craig worked with attorney Emily Aldridge to get benefits from the Veterans Administration. Photo by Darryl Bush.

It took months to recover from injuries suffered when his Jeep flipped over during the 1968 Tet offensive. The crash broke his chest and collarbone and gashed one knee. Back in his hometown of Walnut Creek, the symptoms multiplied. His feet were always cold and numb. Walking across a room or stairs, he would stumble and fall. And then there were the sleepless nights, bouts of unexplained anger and irrational behavior, all later linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I still have nightmares and flashbacks, and I do crazy things sometimes,” said Craig, now 69.

It was no wonder that Craig fell on hard times and went to prison. In 1989, he had two heart attacks, both linked to wartime exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. When he got out in 2014, he filed for disability benefits from the Veterans Administration. But it wasn’t until this year that Craig got them, mostly due to the pro bono help he got from an attorney trained to help veterans apply for VA benefits.

Millions of veterans across America need legal experts to get help from the VA.

Emily Aldridge and Murl Craig
Veteran Murl Craig greets lawyer Emily Aldridge at her San Francisco office.
Photo by Darryl Bush.

“Unfortunately, the process of accessing and obtaining VA benefits is extremely complex and difficult to navigate – particularly when you’re struggling to get your basic needs met,” said Kate Richardson, legal services director for Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco.

In fact, a VA veterans appeals board denies about three out of every four combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who have less than honorable discharges, she said.

To work with the VA attorneys must be accredited and complete three hours of legal education, which is why groups like Swords to Plowshares encourage attorneys who can do pro bono work to sign up for the Practising Law Institute’s free “Advocating for Veterans” CLE.

The course is scheduled for Nov. 14 in San Francisco. Last year, more than 1,000 attorneys signed up for the program online and in person.

Five years ago, when the program first started, there were fewer than 500 California lawyers accredited to represent veterans before the Department of Veterans Affairs, but that quickly tripled in the first two years, thanks to the State Bar’s promotion of the training event.

The State Bar, in its partnership with the PLI, continues to promote the training to various legal and academic organizations and helps speed the processing of accreditation paperwork through the VA so that people will not have to wait three to four months to become accredited.

For more information, see the State Bar page on Resources for Veterans.

Swords to Plowshares works with more than 35 firms and corporations to connect members of the military with pro bono lawyers who can guide them through their legal problems, such as applying for disability benefits or discharge upgrades.

Veterans who don’t have access to VA services because of less-than honorable discharges are twice as likely to be commit suicide and more likely to be homeless.

In 2011, State Bar trustees like Wells Lyman felt the need to train more pro bono attorneys was so great that they pushed to get the bar involved in such efforts. Local bar associations were already organizing pro bono help for vets, but with the State Bar’s involvement, participation grew.

“It was a slow evolution. We thought, ‘If we can get these vets together, they can figure out what they’re going through and they’re not alone,’ ” said Lyman, an attorney and Vietnam veteran himself.

But it still takes at least five months on average to get VA claims processed, Richardson said. More vets are filing claims, not only Vietnam vets but also those who’ve served in more recent conflicts. There are also new kinds of claims from veterans who were denied benefits because of less than honorable discharges and women who were raped while serving in the military.

In fact, “service members who report being sexually assaulted are 35 percent more likely to receive misconduct discharges," Richardson said.

In many cases, attorneys have to do a lot of research just to locate medical and military records.

“We have to work with a lot of missing evidence,” Richardson said. “That sometimes requires us to get creative as advocates. … It’s a lot of digging.”

Veteran Murl Craig’s case was not only complicated by the multiple injuries he received in Vietnam, but the fact that his medical records were scattered across different health plans and hospitals. Craig lived in Walnut Creek and served more than 40 years in prison, where he had two heart attacks. He didn’t have money to pay for legal help when Swords to Plowshares connected him with Emily Aldridge, an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. In fact, Craig could barely afford to live in his rundown apartment in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco.

“He was eating a lot of ramen noodles and really struggling,” Aldridge said. “I think for sure his life is a little easier now that he gets these monthly payments.”

Aldridge argued that  Craig suffered from a number of disabilities, including PTSD, heart disease, a traumatic brain injury, Agent Orange-linked heart disease, and numbness in his limbs, called peripheral neuropathy, that were connected to his military service. But the VA ruled that only the PTSD, heart disease, tinnitus and injuries from the broken collarbone, were linked to his service and only allowed part of his disability claim.

After two years, the VA now considers Craig 90 percent disabled, but he has appealed that decision so that he can be considered 100 percent disabled.  

“The VA is a hugely dysfunctional organization,” Aldridge said. “It is so, so large that it just doesn’t function the way a lot of people want it to.”

Granting 100 percent disability would mean Craig could qualify for more VA benefits, such as dental care. Still, the benefits meant a huge jump in his income. He was able to move from San Francisco to a small rural town north of Sacramento.

Craig believes Aldridge has gone above the call of duty, understanding his conditions and voicing them in a meaningful way to the VA, he said.

 “She’s is real thorough. If [I] look at her pleadings, it brings tears to my eyes,” Craig said. “She’s got the biggest heart in the world. … You need someone who’s really dedicated.”