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Help on the Homefront

Widener's Veterans Law Clinic helped to reinstate the benefits of Navy veteran William Truitt. His benefits had been cut, a move that caused Truitt and his family to go into "Starvation mode."

The decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs floored William Truitt: The agency had revoked his much-needed medical disability payments.

It was June 2012 and the southern Delaware resident who owns a 14-by-70-foot Redman mobile home—but rents the land underneath it—was already stretched thin.

The 59-year-old out-of-work Navy veteran appealed to a VA counselor and submitted requests for the agency to reconsider. But the VA denied him, prompting Truitt, as he said, to go into “starvation survival mode.”

He borrowed money. He searched for odd jobs. He scavenged for discarded pallets he could recycle for cash to buy Spam and hot dogs to feed his family. “It almost sent me over the edge,” said Truitt, who in addition to his wife, daughter, and father-in-law, had temporarily taken in his wife’s grown daughter and her child.

After struggling to make ends meet, he learned of Widener’s Veterans Law Clinic, an 18-year-old program on the Delaware Campus of Widener Law that supports veterans appealing decisions involving medical disability claims. He contacted the clinic and was assigned to Liz Tarloski, a Taishoff-Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow, a position for an attorney on the clinic staff funded in part by a gift to Taking the Lead—The Campaign for Widener. “I thought it was just wonderful they would accept my case,” Truitt said. “They knew I was broke. They accepted it anyway.”

Tarloski discovered that the VA had erred in cutting Truitt’s $1,169 monthly benefits for a service-connected skin condition that left him unable to work. He served on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as a machinist mate fireman apprentice in the 1970s, developing a persistent form of dermatitis that intensifies with physical exertion. After the VA set a hearing date for Truitt in December, Tarloski put out a call for a student volunteer to make the oral argument on his behalf.

William Truitt with Veterans Law ClinicThird-year law student Kendrick McLeod jumped at the opportunity. He had three weeks to prepare, studying the case, planning the argument and vetting it with Tarloski. The hearing came during final exams, but that didn’t slow his efforts on Truitt’s behalf. “Meeting with him put everything into perspective for me,” McLeod said. “Clients are not numbers on a piece of paper. They are real people, and you’re helping them get compensation they deserve.”

Tarloski supported McLeod throughout the argument. He looked to her during the hearing for encouragement and for confirmation that his answers to the hearing officer’s questions were complete and accurate. “Without her, this wouldn’t have been possible,” McLeod said.

Before Christmas—in what was near-record time for a decision, but more than two years after Truitt’s payments were cut—the VA reinstated Truitt’s benefits at an enhanced level and said he would receive back pay for the missed payments. “It was such a relief,” Truitt said. “I have nothing but high praise for the clinic.”

Tarloski is still working on a posttraumatic stress disorder claim that could help Truitt’s financial situation further. “I feel like a wrong has been righted,” Tarloski said of her progress on his case. “I’ve been able to use the legal skills I’ve gained to apply to a situation and better a person’s life.”

A Record Year

Truitt’s is one of 265 active cases being handled by the clinic.

Founded in 1997, the Veterans Law Clinic doesn’t take payments for its services. The clinic provides free legal aid to disabled veterans and their dependents with claims pending before the VA. The clinic specializes in representing veterans’ cases on appeal from VA regional offices in Philadelphia and Wilmington to the Board of Veterans Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

The clinic also assists veterans with other matters related to veterans law, including pension cases, overpayment cases, and discharge upgrades, as well as legal issues that are impediments to financial security, such as expungement of certain criminal charges, collection of medical bills, and obtaining Social Security.

In addition to Truitt’s case, Tarloski in 2014 closed out a case on behalf of a veteran with mental health issues. He was awarded a total of $800,000 in back benefits—a clinic record—in two decisions over two years. For the calendar year 2014, the Veterans Law Clinic recovered $1.7 million—the highest dollar amount recouped for its veteran clients in a single year since it began operations. Total benefits recovered by the clinic since its inception now exceed $7 million, with slightly more than half of that coming in the last three years.

The clinic’s outstanding track record prompted Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in October to award it a 2014 Delaware Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award for community service, recognizing the clinic’s “generous gifts of time, talent, and energy.”

Campaign-Funded Fellowships

Tarloski joined the clinic in the fall of 2013 as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow. She had earned her law degree little more than a year before at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law and had an eye for public interest work. Clinic Director Susan Saidel had secured funding that required a match from the law school. A portion of the $1.2 million gift from the Florida-based Taishoff Family Foundation, headed by Delaware alumnus Capt. Robert Taishoff ’89, met the match requirement for an additional year and the Taishoff name was added to Tarloski’s title. The endowed gift establishing the Taishoff Advocacy, Technology, and Public Service Institute on the Delaware Campus in 2009 is the largest ever given to the law school.

Saidel said Tarloski’s success on the Truitt case demonstrates the broader civic engagement impact of Widener’s campaign, and what was possible because of gifts like the one made by the Taishoff Family Foundation. “The gift allowed us to provide desperately needed legal assistance to Mr. Truitt and others by having Liz Tarloski on staff with the clinic, and it boosted the skills-building experience for Kendrick McLeod, who got to play a pivotal role in this case as a student, with Liz’s assistance,” Saidel said. “Even more importantly, I think, was that it allowed us to provide services that restored a U.S. veteran’s dignity and quality of life.”

Tarloski’s role will conclude this September. A second fellow, Jana DiCosmo, a 2012 Widener Law graduate, began working in the clinic in September. Her position, also funded in equal parts by the Taishoff Family Foundation and Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps, will run through September. “The fact that I’m able to return to my law school and help people who’ve given so much is really rewarding,” said DiCosmo, whose father, two brothers, and a sister all served in the Army. “My job shouldn’t exist. Veterans shouldn’t need attorneys to get their benefits. But I’m so incredibly proud to be here to do it.”

DiCosmo came to the clinic from a clerkship with Gloucester County, N.J., Superior Court Judge Mary K. White. Like Tarloski, she is determined to use her law degree for public good. To date she has about thirty active cases and she is assisting with other clinic cases as needed. Her door is always open for students to wander in with questions.

One of her most rewarding clinic experiences so far involved a national figure: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. McDonald took over the troubled agency last year amid complaints about long wait times for appointments and care. He pledged better communication and asked to hear from people in the field.

When DiCosmo began work on the case of a client who has been waiting six years for a hearing on a post-traumatic stress disorder claim, she sent McDonald an email on a Monday afternoon. She received a call the following morning, saying McDonald’s office wanted to help. “I’ve never encountered so much cooperation,” DiCosmo said.

The experience has left her optimistic about her work, and the potential for improved communication between the clinic and the VA. And she is grateful that a campaign gift has made it possible for her to work at Widener, impacting students’ and veterans’ lives. “This is what I went to law school to do,” she said.