Vermont Bar Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 Fall 2015, Vol 41, No. 3 - Page 25

by Katelyn Atwood Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project Katelyn Atwood is nearing the halfway mark of her two-year Poverty Law Fellowship at the South Royalton Legal Clinic. Atwood’s focus is advocacy for veterans whose disabilities should qualify them for VA (US Department of Veteran’s Affairs) benefits, but who have been denied benefits after their application. Her work is making a difference for veterans with disabilities related to their service. “The biggest victory, honestly, is preserving appeal deadlines for people,” Atwood said. “Every federal dollar we’re getting for a veteran helps. It can be the difference between living with dignity, housing, food, and transportation, and security on one hand, and really having to scramble on the other.” Atwood has found negotiating the maze of the VA system a challenge for the veterans attempting to obtain those benefits they have earned. Atwood learned that the VA staff who initially review applications are not always aware of how federal statute, federal regulations, the VA’s internal policies and procedures, and federal case law apply to her clients. “For example, the Office of General Counsel issues precedent opinions that are binding on the agency,” she said. “But the people who review the applications, and even lawyers from the Office of General Counsel do not necessarily know what those opinions say. The ratings adjudicators who get a first look at a veteran’s disability application are often not law trained, so we usually see cases where the applicant is clearly eligible, but they were still denied.” Atwood reflected on one case in particular where the disability claim was based on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from military sexual trauma. The claimant received an honorable discharge from active duty service and then was discharged from service under circumstances that were less than honorable. “The rules and precedential opinions are perfectly clear that it is an active duty discharge that matters when determining eligibility for disability benefits, but the VA denied the veteran’s claim because of the later less than honorable discharge,” At- THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL • FALL 2015 wood said. “They got it wrong.” “One of the best things is that we now have a roster of attorneys in Vermont who want to do this work,” Atwood said. “If any attorney ever wanted to partner with me on a case so they can learn how to do it, call or email me.” In addition to providing direct legal services to clients, Atwood supervises Vermont Law School students working at the South Royalton Legal Clinic as they learn how to practice law in this area. Atwood is also an active member of the National Law School Veterans Clinic Coalition, and has volunteered her time planning a national conference dedicated to representing clients in the VA system for November 2015. Her fellowship will run for another year, until September 2016. Katelyn Atwood can be reached at the South Royalton Legal Clinic or by emailing 25