Berry Law Firm 3/2/17 03/03/17 2:44:02 PM
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John S. Berry Jr. (left) and his father, John Stevens Berry Sr., both served in the U.S. military and now both serve their fellow veterans.
Berry Law and Disability Benefits:
Iraq, Afghanistan ‘Changed Everything’
By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record
Many service members get out of the military and just want to move on with their lives as quickly as possible. John Stevens Berry Sr., founding partner at the Berry Law Firm, knows that firsthand. After his military service in Vietnam, he said, “I didn’t want to stick around; I just wanted to get to Hawaii.”
That means that injuries sustained during active duty aren’t reported, so when health issues flare up years later, and a veteran files a claim, the government might contest it asking, “How do we know when that injury occurred? How do we know it was related to your military service?”
That’s where the Berry Law Firm comes in. Their attorneys help veterans appeal disability claims. “Often veterans need our assistance to put together a legal argument for them,” John S. Berry Jr. said. “It’s one of their biggest hurdles.”
When a veteran submits a disability claim one of three things can happen. “One, they get service-connected with a disability, but the rating they get is too low. Two, they are completely denied benefits. And three, they are satisfied with their disability rating and all is good.”
If a veteran is denied, then he or she has to prove that the injury or disease occurred while he or she was on active duty and that isn’t always easy. “Two of the best ways to prove it are through an independent medical opinion or through ‘buddy statements,’” he said. “We talk to someone who served with the [soldier], someone who can say ‘I was on patrol when the IED exploded. I took him to the medic or field hospital.’
“You would be surprised how often medical records disappear; people get treated but there is no record. In that case, we need witnesses. We may get a statement from a spouse or the veteran’s children, and they will say that he was different when he came back, or that he had a noticeable injury, such as he walked with a limp. We can also look at job performance records for evidence in PTSD cases. Maybe the veteran was a top performer before the traumatic event and now he barely meets the standard.”
Every day, the firm encounters veterans who are frustrated with the system. For example, one man filed for benefits in 1971, but the case wasn’t adjudicated. “He should have been receiving benefits for several decades, but, because of an error, they denied the claim.
“I had one guy who had been fighting the VA on his own for five years. He asked ‘can you help me?’ These are the cases we want to be involved in. The veterans know they are entitled to benefits, but they can’t get past the red tape, because they don’t understand the system.
“We want to get them the treatment and compensation they deserve. One veteran had been fighting PTSD for a decade. We got him service-connected at 100 percent. He knew a homeless vet who was living under a bridge. The homeless veteran had filed a claim seven or eight years prior, but the claim was never adjudicated,” Berry Jr. said.
With Berry Law Firm’s help, the homeless veteran was service-connected with a disability rating of 100 percent, and was awarded a six-figure amount of back pay. “He bought a house,” he said. “It truly was life changing for him.
“Our mission is extremely important to us. Veterans’ disability appeals are record intensive, and it’s challenging, but doing this, you get to meet heroes of every generation and hear their stories … it’s humbling and rewarding. You get a different feeling protecting the rights of those who defended our constitutional rights on the battlefield.”
Veterans’ disability has special meaning for John Stevens Berry Sr. and John S. Berry Jr., as both have distinguished military service records.
“My father is a Vietnam vet. He served three tours, and after he came back he would meet veterans who were charged with DUI or domestic violence, or who were going through divorce, and had PTSD. He worked for them pro bono. I served in the infantry and went to Ranger school. In 1999, I went to Bosnia, then enrolled in Creighton [University] School of Law in 2000. Then, in 2005, I went to Iraq. When I came back, our firm was trial practice-focused, but changes in the law allowed us to provide more legal services to veterans in 2007. (Berry Jr. was in Bosnia for Operation Joint Forge and in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.)
“Our veterans practice grew very quickly. Veterans law is a unique practice area that allows us to represent veterans nationwide. We represent veterans, from World War II to Iraqi Freedom, in 50 states. We have employees from all four branches of the military: three are former Air Force, one was a Marine and my chief operating officer was in the Navy. And my dad and I were in the Army.”
Times have certainly changed when it comes to veterans’ disabilities and the law. “The problems have grown over decades. It’s layers and layers of complexity, with no quick solution,” Berry Jr. said.
“When we sent our military to Afghanistan and Iraq, we didn’t contemplate how we would take care of the large numbers of returning disabled veterans.
“The Greatest Generation never asked for help. Many WWII vets only get help when their spouses ask for it. These guys didn’t expect help; they did their service and moved on.
“Some Vietnam veterans were told horrific things when they filed VA claims. They were told to ‘get out; you’re a whiner.’ They were shamed for asking for help.
“Then there was a sea change. Before, veterans felt they had no place to turn so they needed to rely on each other. Iraq and Afghanistan changed everything.
“When I came back, the VA had set up transition centers; there was a special unit for OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) veterans and the VA was accessible to us.”
Of course, it all depends on the state in which one lives, he said, but the Veterans Affairs [Administration] can be difficult.
“In Chicago, they are backed up for five years,” he added. “But Nebraska is one of the great places for veterans to pursue claims. The Lincoln Regional Office does a great job. It is one of the best.”
Berry Law Firm has more than 100 years of combined experience, with expertise in a wide range of criminal matters, as well as veterans’ disability appeals and personal injury matters. The firm and its attorneys have been honored with the following awards: John Stevens Berry Sr. is included in Super Lawyers® and has an AV Preeminent® Rating by Martindale-Hubbell. The Berry Law Firm is also listed as a Martindale-Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent® Attorneys. The firm has offices in Lincoln, Seward and at 108 North 49th Street, Suite 210 in Omaha.
For more information, go to jsberrylaw.com or call 402-466-8444.