David Huffman has helped thousands of military veterans seeking disability benefits navigate the complex, often slow and at times frustrating claims process. The Wood County lawyer can relate: he was a 19-year-old Marine in Vietnam when a booby trap blinded him. (Jody Murphy / AP)
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — David Huffman has helped thousands of military veterans seeking disability benefits navigate the complex, often slow and at times frustrating claims process. The Wood County lawyer can relate: he was a 19-year-old Marine in Vietnam when a booby trap blinded him.
As if getting through college and law school without sight weren't challenges enough, Huffman has begun a new quest: convincing the U.S. government to change the way it allows lawyers to handle veteran disability claims.
Huffman is targeting the policy for claims, revised in 2007, that says a veteran can hire a lawyer for a fee only after a claim has been rejected. He supports what he hopes becomes a national movement, Veterans for Full Representation, which is seeking nonprofit status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and recently launched a website. Ultimately, he hopes officials will allow fee-charging lawyers earlier in the process.
"I want the (Disabled American Veterans), the VFW or any of them to say, 'Why the heck would you want to pay an attorney 20 percent of your back check, when we can do it for free?' Maybe that will help them do better, to give the veteran a choice," Huffman said. "Veterans, in the long run, are better off having free choice and full representative from either an attorney or a claims representative."
Huffman has long been involved in veterans' affairs. He caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, after earning his degrees with the help of audio books, and agreed to join the new Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. A Delaware native, Huffman was also active in such groups as Vietnam Veterans of America.
He moved to West Virginia after meeting his wife, Cheryl, in 2000 and began aiding veterans on a case-by-case, word-of-mouth basis.
Huffman now has nearly 2,000 veteran clients and estimates that he's helped several times as many in the last dozen years.
"Until 2006 or 2007, you couldn't hardly find me in the phone book," Huffman said. "They just referred each other to me, and after so many years, it just got to where in order to get the work done I had to hire people."
Groups like the Disabled American Veterans provide service officers to help veterans file benefit claims for free. While praising these organizations, Huffman questions whether they have enough staff for the avalanche of claims both from recently returned and aging veterans.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 22 million veterans nationally. Of the 1.6 million from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 45 percent are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related, The Associated Press recently found. That compares with 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, top government officials told the AP.
Huffman also argues that these groups don't have the funding to obtain a veteran's medical records, or to arrange for an opinion from a physician or specialist. But his chief concern is the expertise of these service officers, given this complicated and evolving area of the law. He cited anecdotes from veterans and his own experience of service officers receiving just a few hours' training in a year's time, or who appeared to pre-judge a veteran for a claim involving noncombat injuries, or who see themselves more like a chaplain than a claims advocate.
"I can't say this in general, because the (veterans) I don't hear from are the ones who are happy," Huffman said. "I love the veterans' organizations, and there are claims representatives who do a good job and a lot of them get more training than they used to. But the fact that veterans do not have an alternative but them has hurt the veterans more than it helped them. I hate to say that."
Joe Violante of the Disabled American Veterans said its 250 or so national service officers must complete a 16-month process before assisting with claims, and then receive training and are tested throughout their careers. They are all also wartime-disabled veterans, said Violante, who estimated that the DAV represents more veterans than the other service groups combined.
"They know it firsthand," said Violante, a Vietnam veteran. "They've been involved on a personal level, in addition to being trained to help others get through the process."
States also help veterans. West Virginia's Department of Veterans' Assistance, recently elevated to Cabinet-level, has 16 field offices with trained service officers that provide free assistance, spokeswoman Heather Miles said.
"For this reason, the (department) is confident that West Virginia's veterans and their dependents have access to quality claims assistance under the current system," Miles said.
Veterans often have more than one condition they attribute to their military service. Those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan on average are claiming eight to nine ailments. For those who have come back since mid-2011, the average is 11 to 14. Failing to identify all of a veteran's service-related claims at the onset can mean a delay in resolving their case or insufficient benefits, Huffman said. He offered the example of a veteran with a service-related back injury who has begun suffering depression as a result, but his pending benefit request fails to make that connection.
This reality makes the policy limiting lawyer involvement unfair and counter-productive, Huffman argues.
"So, you either throw the veteran under the bus by handling just what's on appeal — that's a lot easier — or you represent him correctly, on everything," Huffman said. "I did not want to throw the veteran under the bus."
The Disabled American Veterans has opposed fee-charging lawyers, Violante said.
"We don't believe that veterans should have to pay for their earned benefits," said Violante, who is also a lawyer. "We've seen a lot of egregious cases where veterans have paid an awful lot of money (to attorneys) regardless of the level of representation."
While the DAV now accepts the policy change, its members have adopted a resolution asking Congress to cap attorneys' fees, Violante said.
"Attorneys are in the process, for better or worse," he said. "I think that we would oppose bringing them in on the initial claims process."
Huffman likens his situation to that of David versus Goliath, but believes the cause is worthy.
"I'm 65, I can retire. I don't have to do this. I get veterans benefits myself," he said. "But I like to do this, and I want to see that the veterans are taken care of. I can't imagine how many Second World War veterans died without even knowing what their benefits were."