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Law group launches program to help veterans

Public Counsel will offer the free service throughout Southern California and in more than 25 states and will provide free legal representation in court as well as for administrative proceedings.

November 12, 2009|Phil Willon

A Los Angeles-based law organization Wednesday launched a program to provide free legal assistance to veterans who hit bureaucratic roadblocks when filing claims for federal medical and mental health benefits.

Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, will offer the free service throughout Southern California and, in partnership with other volunteer attorneys, in more than 25 states.

"Many veterans who return home to their families are facing a system that routinely rejects their benefit claims," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a Veterans Day news conference to announce the effort. "That's absolutely unacceptable. We can and must do more for our nation's heroes."

Public Counsel President Hernan D. Vera said the effort would help the 1.7 million troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iran, many of whom have been denied benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injury and other combat-related injuries.

The program also will help the tens of thousands of homeless veterans living on the nation's streets to collect government assistance.

"The veterans' homeless population is skyrocketing. Nearly one out of every four homeless individuals we see on the streets of Los Angeles wore the uniform protecting our country. But only one in 10 receive the government services that they're entitled to," Vera said.

The legal program, called the Center for Veterans Advancement, will provide free legal representation in court as well as for administrative proceedings with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, all branches of the military and with other local and national agencies.

Marine Corps veteran Aaron Huffman, 27, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2000 to 2004, said he was forced to turn to Public Counsel last year when the Veterans Administration denied his claim for medical coverage after he injured his back when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Iraq. The Humvee flipped and loads of gear landed on Huffman, pinning him against the windshield.

Huffman, of Costa Mesa, said he underwent spinal surgery for three herniated disks in his lower back. He said the Veterans Administration immediately denied his claim for compensation, telling him that he needed to provide more documentation that showed the injuries were suffered in combat.

"When you're in the middle of combat, you don't always have time to pull over and say, 'Time out, I just got hurt, can you record this,' " Huffman said. "That's not the way combat works. That's some of the issues veterans are facing."

The Center for Veterans Advancement is being sponsored by grants from the Safeway and Vons foundations, as well as Northrop Grumman, the Oder Family Foundation, the Bettingen Foundation and other private donors. It does not receive city funding.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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